Revisiting La strada

The Daily — Nov 5, 2020
Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s La strada (1954)

In 1993, just days before Federico Fellini suffered a heart attack and died on October 31, New York’s Film Forum opened a thirty-film restoration with La strada (1954). Martin Scorsese approved, noting in the New York Times that when he decided to introduce his daughter to Fellini’s work, he, too, selected La strada. “After all,” he wrote, “here was a ‘vintage Fellini’: the circus and the seashore, piazzas at night and open-air weddings, humor and compassion in a world that is often hostile and grotesque, yet magical and full of apparitions, of surprise, where laughter and melancholy are intermingled. Also there are Nino Rota’s musical score, Otello Martelli’s black-and-white photography and, most of all, Giulietta Masina’s memorable performance as Gelsomina, the simple-minded waif dominated by a brutal strongman.”

A week after Masina died of lung cancer in the spring of 1994, Roger Ebert revisited La strada, calling it “the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful autobiographical extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work—to see the rest of his career as a long slide into self-indulgence. I don’t see it that way. I think La strada is part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces La dolce vita (1960), (1963), and Amarcord (1974), and to the bewitching films he made in between, like Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Roma (1972). La strada is the first film that can be called entirely Felliniesque.”

It was also the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as it was called at the time (it’s now the Best International Feature Film). Fellini himself referred to La strada as “the complete catalogue of my entire mythological world,” and on another occasion, noted that, from “a sentimental point of view,” it is, of all of his films, the one to which he was “most attached . . . Above all, because I feel that it is my most representative film, the one that is the most autobiographical; for both personal and sentimental reasons,” and “because it is the film that I had the greatest trouble in realizing.”

Fellini especially related to Zampanò, the traveling strongman played by Anthony Quinn who collects tips from onlookers as he bursts an iron chain with his bare chest. He buys Masina’s naïve Gelsomina from her mother as a sort of sidekick who clowns around with a drum and a trumpet. Despite her unconditional devotion to Zampanò, he’s relentlessly brutish and cruel. “Throughout,” writes Fernando F. Croce, “Nino Rota’s melody embodies the parable’s plaintive unrest, variously hummed, played on a tiny fiddle, and blown on a forlorn cornet before it comes crashing down during the palooka’s flash of epiphanic horror. Quite the patch of pathos, a voyage about obvious and hidden beauty, a turning point for an artist increasingly beguiled by private mythologies.”

Janus Films is putting a new 4K restoration of La strada in virtual theaters from coast to coast, and Sean Burns, writing for WBUR, argues that now is the perfect time for it: “One of the greatest of all films, this haunting, heartfelt fable feels like a balm during these troubled times, its essential, insistent humanity arriving as a reminder right when we need it most.”

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