La Strada Movie Review
Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina, who was Fellini's wife) is walking along a bright and uninhabited beach. She's in the low corner of the frame, a diminutive figure with her back to us, facing an endless stretch of white sand going off to one side and the infinite vastness of sea and sky going the other. Tentatively, yet hopefully, she moves forward. In a few seconds we know this character.
From there La Strada becomes a road movie, the poignant story of down-and-out street performers Zampano (Anthony Quinn, in one of his earliest and best performances) and Gelsomina and how their travels through an indeterminate time and place eventually circle back to the beach. This time there's no sunlit sand and wide reach of sea filling the immeasurable horizon. Instead it's Zampano, at night and alone in the dark. A beast of a man in size and strength, he sits in the center of the frame curling his body in the cool sand, facing us, crying out in pain.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Zampano," Zampano proudly introduces himself throughout the movie as he struts around the center of a gathered crowd, shirt off, pectorals bulging, bragging how he'll break a metal chain with his mighty chest. Gelsomina is on the sidelines beating a drum to add tension and drama to this pathetic stunt, and she'll pass the hat afterwards. He introduces her as his wife, but of course she is no such thing. Zampano has paid for her to become his traveling partner and performing assistant: 10,000 lire cash to Gelsomina's mother as the fatherless family needs money along with one less mouth to feed. And Zampano can teach her stuff, train her like dog, he says. Gelsomina, in her own naïve, slow-eyed innocence, believes she's been chosen by and for this man, a man who will teach her and make her future as a performer, an artist. And as he calls her wife as part of the show, she believes that too.
Zampano treats Gelsomina like a dog. Hitting her with a stick when she makes mistakes, expecting womanly attention when the mood arrives, and leaving her on the street as he sees other woman. Fellini emphasizes this in one scene as Gelsomina, after performing at a wedding, is picking crumbs off the floor with family dogs. If Zampano is all cynical and bitter in a strong and unchecked body, she is all light and childish innocence.
Gelsomina has become a movie icon. A character of limited intelligence and little verbal ability, she has few lines. So Masina uses her body like a silent-film clown to express what can't be said. That excited, penguin-like walk as she marches in a circle learning to play a new tune on the horn. That endearing, waiflike face with long lashes and sad eyes staring out the back of a closet-sized trailer that Zampano pulls with a motorbike. As the movie takes us through parades, circuses, and processions, Masina's physical performance of Gelsomina's struggle for decency and respect amid the unfair and brutish takes us beyond admiring the character and acting. Masina gives us a chance to experience a real sense of affection for this woman.
When Gelsomina meets The Fool (Richard Basehart), a tightrope artist who eats spaghetti 125 feet in the sky, and, like all theatrical fools, is full of insight and wisdom, she listens when he talks, even when he can't help being cruel, calling her an "artichoke." But one night he tells her Zampano may love her. "But he can't say it because he's like a dog and just barks," says The Fool. We know she'll stand by Zampano after hearing this, even when he kills The Fool in a fit of jealous rage and, unable to stand it anymore, she goes quietly insane, moaning like an injured puppy.
La Strada was released in 1954, won Best Foreign Film in 1956 (it took a while for the U.S. to catch up with foreign movies in the fifties), was released again in 1994, when Martin Scorsese financed a re-mastered print, and now, nearly fifty years later, it's out in a Criterion Collection 2 disc DVD with plenty of extras. Space does not allow going into all the features: there's an introduction by Scorsese, a documentary on Fellini, an essay by Peter Mathews and audio commentary by Peter Bondanella, a Fellini scholar. I still haven't got through it all. And that's the beauty of these 2 disc DVDs. You go back to them, over and over, and each time there's something new and informative, and ways of seeing the movie you haven't noticed before.
Critics love to argue over La Strada being The Masterpiece by Fellini: the history -making performance of Giulietta Masina, the lyrical images of Fellini, the distinctive and affecting score from Nino Rota. Among this great and creative director's work, who can say? But I think La Strada, with its combination of simple fable and intense, almost magical emotionality, catches and holds modern audiences in ways Fellini's better-known and more financially successful movies (La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2) never can. I've seen La Strada many times, so I was expecting the same old-same old when I set it in the DVD player for this review. It was a genuine surprise how this movie could still touch me. Many Fellini movies are out on DVD. This is the one to get.