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A low-key mood study about a broken-down carnival strongman and his half-wit assistant traveling through the bleak backwaters of post-war Italy wouldn’t, at first glance, appear to have much going for it in the way of international critical and commercial appeal. But from the moment of its release in 1954, it was clear that La strada had everything.
An immediate box office hit, La strada won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. In Italy it catapulted its director, Federico Fellini, to the front ranks of that country’s greatest filmmaking talents. It revived the acting fortunes of its American star Anthony Quinn, and made his co-star, Giulietta Masina, a world-wide sensation. Nino Rota’s haunting musical theme for La strada poured from countless radios, juke boxes and record players. But far more important than these particulars of first rank success was the simple fact that this uniquely bittersweet comedy-drama touched people’s hearts in a way few films have managed to do. And, there is no question that it will continue to do so for years to come.
Federico Fellini began his career working with a traveling theater troupe before becoming (in succession) a radio gag writer, a cartoonist, a scriptwriter and assistant for such established Italian talents as Roberto Rossellini and Pietro Germi. His first features, The White Sheik (1952) and I Vitelloni (1953) suggested he was aiming to establish himself as a comic filmmaker. La strada consequently came as a surprise.
The “neo-realist” school of filmmaking (Rossellini’s Open City and DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves) had accustomed critics and audiences to dealing with the darker and more depressed areas of the post-war Italian scene, but La strada was different. These characters are certainly recognizable as human flotsam and jetsam, but no one would call them “ordinary.” Marginal in the extreme, they wind their way across a landscape so barren as to resemble one of De Chirico’s eerily surrealistic canvases. Likewise, Fellini’s treatment of their adventures and interactions doesn’t aim for a sense of commonality on the level usually associated with naturalism. There’s an odd touch of fantasy hanging about this childlike waif and the sullen brute who keeps her, and more than a touch of the magical to the circus high-wire walker known as The Fool, who they meet along the way.
It is clear that Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is mentally retarded. It is also clear that this mental state hasn’t destroyed her sense of self. Zampano (Anthony Quinn) may have bought her from her mother like a common slave, but it is Gelsomina who comes to understand the world and her place in it, not her brutish keeper. “Why do you want me?” Gelsomina asks Zampano —she’s not pretty, she’s not talented and he clearly doesn’t love her. But it is also clear that a man even on as low a level of the totem pole as Zampano needs something he can call his own—and that something is Gelsomina. The Fool (Richard Basehart) helps Gelsomina come to grips with this fact, and her place in the world as well. A catalyst in other characters’ lives, he gives Gelsomina hope. But his merciless teasing of the humorless Zampano precipitates the disaster that brings La strada to its tragic climax.
Fellini’s treatment of all of this is effortless and elegant. These particular characters may carry universal weight, but they’re never allowed to degenerate into cardboard symbols. Giulietta Masina’s clown-like face and comic timing inevitably recall Chaplin. But neither the actress nor her director press the point. La strada never presses any point. Like the characters’ realizations about themselves and the world, the meaning of La strada slips over you gradually, simply,unforgettably.