Federico Fellini entered into the world of cinema by way of Italian Neorealism, working on such seminal titles as Rome, Open City, in 1945, and Paisan, in 1946. While there is some debate about when and with what picture this influential movement was first introduced in its archetypal form (Luchino Visconti’s 1943 production Ossessione usually stakes that claim), the film that appears to strike a decisive break from the tradition, if not signaling its actual dissolution, is Fellini’s own 1954 feature, his third solo directorial effort, La Strada. Remnants of Neorealism linger in this touching fable-like tale, which charts the troubled course of brutish strong man Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) and his newly purchased assistant-cum-emergent spouse, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), but that which remains in this disparate and distressed post-war nowhere land has taken on an entirely unique perspective. Rudimentary relics of Neorealism persisted in the years that followed La Strada, but the construct, in its traditional sense, would never return.
La Strada was written by Fellini with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, both of whom also collaborated on the director’s The White Sheik (1952) and I Vitelloni (1953). Though now rightly regarded as an international classic, going on to win the Academy’s inaugural Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 (among dozens of other plaudits), La Strada’s path to recognition was as rocky and as fraught with struggle as that which Zampanò and Gelsomina tragically traverse. After the project was repeatedly rejected, Fellini managed to secure financing with budding super-producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. But theirs was a decidedly more conventional conception, with the ideal casting of Silvana Mangano (not coincidentally, De Laurentiis’ then wife) as Gelsomina and Burt Lancaster as Zampanò. Fellini held firm. Masina had only been in a few films since her credited debut in Without Pity (1948), but she was, after all, the inspiration for La Strada itself. More established, if often still in supporting roles, Quinn had over 60 film and television credits to his name by this point, including his Oscar-winning turn in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952). Overtly bucking Neorealism’s general nonprofessional trend, Quinn was approached while working on the 1954 film Angels of Darkness, which also happened to star Masina. Initially reluctant, Quinn watched I Vitelloni one night after dinner with Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. “I was thunderstruck,” the actor recalled. The deal was done … at least for Fellini. De Laurentiis was never happy with Masina, though, and when the actress dislocated her ankle during shooting — subsequently halting production — the producer attempted to intercede and replace the leading lady. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for viewers to this day, executives at Paramount saw what Fellini had filmed so far and were knocked out by Masina’s performance.
This brief casting chapter of La Strada’s back-story is important, for when seeing the film now, it is utterly inconceivable that anyone other than Masina and Quinn could have ever have played these roles. Masina is especially a treasure, a one-of-a-kind performer and, as with Marcello Mastroianni in the years to come, a quintessential Fellini figure. What she does with the loveable half-wit Gelsomina is remarkable.
Gelsomina’s mother assures Zampanò that though her daughter “just came out a little strange,” she would be every bit as valuable as her sister, Rosa, who was also purchased by Zampanò and was now, rather suspiciously, deceased. He is convinced (or maybe just desperate), so 10,000 lire later, the two are on their way. Subjected to physical abuse and demoralizing abandonment, with only occasional glimmers of professional satisfaction, Gelsomina endures with a tenacious optimism. When she speaks, which is rare, her affectionate admissions and passionate proclamations give voice to the heart of La Strada, but as a result of Masina’s naturally vibrant physicality, her expressions penetrate the soul. What she implies with a wide-eyed glance or downtrodden furrow exposes a sentiment only she and Fellini could ever delineate. Grief, naïve sanguinity, bewilderment, hesitation: the animated Masina conveys all this and more in a silent matter of seconds. And it’s all for us. Few of her demonstrations are ever seen or at least acknowledged by another character, but viewers see everything. That’s why she is such an endearing character — it’s like she is there just for the audience, a gift for the lucky few from Fellini and his muse. The only individuals who seem to appreciate Gelsomina for her ingenuous virtue are the children who gravitate toward her presence and mimic her gestures. It’s little wonder Walt Disney at one point suggested a cartoon based around this character, apparently declaring, “I could have lived on Gelsomina for twenty years.”
The flipside to this is the crude, crass and cruel Zampanò. “I can even teach dogs,” he declares when making a deal for Gelsomina, and while breaking an iron chain linked across his chest may be the grand finale of his unseemly presentation, he indeed needs the young woman to act in assorted skits and musical routines (she picks up the trumpet rather well). So with his variously described “wife”/“sidekick,” he roams the Italian outskirts in a rickety makeshift jalopy. He’s a vulgar gadabout, a “macho man,” as one lusty tramp states. He is sweaty, unshaven and surly (go ahead and judge these books by their cover: Gelsomina is by comparison warm, unblemished and chaste). At the time of La Strada, Quinn was simultaneously starring in the 1954 production of Attila, also produced by De Laurentiis, shooting with Fellini in the morning and with Pietro Francisci later in the day. “This schedule accounted for the haggard look I had in both films,” says Quinn, “a look that was perfect for Zampanò but scarcely OK for Attila the Hun.” Yet Zampanò manages to exude a strange sexuality — understandable for a man like Quinn, surprising for a man like Zampanò. Either way, he projects enough of an alluring something to bed a certain type of lady, but despite her hopes, even despite his mistreatment, romance was never part of the bargain for Gelsomina. In fact, with clearly no understanding of what kind of man he is, one wonders what exactly her expectations were.
The third key player in La Strada is in some ways the most pivotal. As a high wire artist and all-around clown, Richard Basehart is “The Fool,” whose most astonishing feat is eating a bowl of spaghetti 125 feet in the air (he’s an Italian circus performer, what else would he do?). Fellini had been a fan of Basehart’s for some time, and as it so happened, the actor was also on the set of Angels of Darkness, which featured his wife, Valentina Cortese. What he does with this character is one of the more confounding elements of La Strada. In contrast to Zampanò, The Fool is the ostensible “good guy” of the film, but the constant goading of his boorish counterpart proves fatal and gratuitously overbearing. He simply doesn’t know when to stop. He is even still hard on poor Gelsomina. The only difference is that he also knows when to disperse adequate doses of flattery. Most importantly, he is the one who attempts to elucidate Gelsomina’s odd devotion to Zampanò, suggesting the lout may also have feelings for her; he is like a dog, says The Fool, who wants to bark but can only speak. Between this subtle suggestion of potential intimacy, and his sermon about Gelsomina’s worth in the world, The Fool lays out the most hopeful messages of the film, but in doing so, he inadvertently sets the simple girl up for heartbreak.
A chance encounter with The Fool seals the fate of all involved. Zampanò’s hyped strength leads to his downfall, and a murder that seemed inevitable remains still shocking as it occurs quite accidentally, in broad daylight, and not in particularly nasty fashion. In any case, it’s a disastrous turning point. Gelsomina descends into a nearly paralytic state of shock, winter falls, and even the caustic Zampanò is left reeling. He had appeared simple and naïve in his own way (his pathetic bravado as he sizes up a circus tent like a scrupulous assessor) and even has fleeting moments of decency (taking his hat off during a convent stopover, where he also chops firewood for the sisters). But it’s difficult to ever fully sympathize with this brute (he tries to steal from the nuns, and smacks Gelsomina when she refuses to help). So, in perhaps the cruelest twist of La Strada, the devastating slaying of The Fool becomes not only the catalyst for genuine emotion from Zampanò, it produces the first potent trace of sympathy for this barbaric swine. The final moments of La Strada may be the most poignant of any Fellini film, partly a result of Quinn’s powerful execution and partly a result of Fellini’s sensitive advancement. If the film’s controversial conclusion doesn’t automatically point toward full-fledged redemption via Zampanò’s anguish, it does suggest his accepted guilt, and that alone is a reflective step forward.
It’s fitting that Fellini’s breakthrough film would revolve around a troupe of entertainers. A circus-like atmosphere infuses his best work, sometimes literally, and La Strada captures this essence on a number of fronts, starting with the jubilant-whimsical score from Nino Rota, whose musical motifs are inseparable from Fellini’s vision (and vice versa). Few filmmakers have composed a brand of cinema where music, image and tone are so seamlessly in sync, but Fellini accomplished this feat on a regular basis — there’s a reason he was lovingly dubbed “Maestro.” Save for the actual circus, though, and a briefly rowdy wedding party, there is less boisterous commotion in La Strada. In a way that preserves his Neorealist roots, Fellini delicately incorporates the poetic and riotous into a world grounded in realism. Here, this reality manifests itself in his observant depiction of cultural flavor, from the hearty richness of local cuisine to how uncouth locals hold their forks, from the proliferation of wine, song and dance to the devout religiosity of the citizenry.
Hints of the surreal start to appear (a musical trio suddenly emerging along some country road), but Fellini’s eventual penchant for the fantastical has not yet been pushed to the extreme. Further rendering La Strada in naturalistic terms is its deep-focus photography. Cinematographer Otello Martelli, who had already shot Variety Lights and I Vitelloni (and would go on to shoot Fellini’s next film, Il Bidone, as well as his ecstatic La Dolce Vita five years later), had to leave La Strada after the above-mentioned delay in production; a prior commitment led to Carlo Carlini stepping in as a replacement. Though who shot what isn’t fully evident (nor necessarily relevant), the beautiful imagery is a masterful showcase, one that superbly engages with Fellini’s temperamental tendencies. There are no large-scale exercises in set-piece staging or multi-character choreography, but what Fellini and his DPs do with desolate nocturnal streets — somberly lit and littered with debris and desperation — is extraordinary.
La Strada premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1954, where it was among four films to win the Silver Lion for Best Direction. While this was just the beginning of the praise soon heaped upon the picture, Fellini’s film was not without its detractors. A fight occurred at Venice when Luchino Visconti’s Senso was overlooked in favor of La Strada (Senso being an excellent film in its own right), and ideological Marxist critics condemned La Strada for its Christian notions of salvation and sacrifice. On the other hand, along those lines, the Catholic Church later chose La Strada as an exceptional work of art and Pope Francis declared it to be his most beloved film.
Regarding Giulietta Masina in particular, Martin Scorsese has likened La Strada to the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte and the comic stylings of Charlie Chaplin. Like the film itself, her performance is a magical amalgamation of candid spirit, intense compassion and profound pathos. Fellini’s films often flourished with acute ruminations on life and society, but rarely would his work achieve this degree of pure emotion. As the story goes, when The White Sheik producer Luigi Rovere read the script for La Strada, he broke down in tears. “It’s not cinema,” he said. “It’s more like literature.” More accurately, though, it is simply “Felliniesque.” That exceeds any medium.
Watch ‘La Strada’ at FilmStruck.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.