The fifth film directed by world-renowned Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, “La Strada” (1954) is essentially a road movie featuring two characters that should not be together. One is a selfish brute with little or no conscience and the other is a young woman who may or may not be mentally deficient. Sometimes difficult to watch due to the way the brute treats the woman, it is a dramatic look at life for travelling performers. Its two leads carry the movie throughout, especially Giuletta Masina as the woman, whose expressive eyes and costume evoke Charlie Chaplin.
As the film opens, her character Gelsomina learns her sister Rosa has died while travelling on the road. Rosa was working with Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a strong man who travels on Italy’s road in a rickety cart pulled by a motorcycle. Zampanò essentially buys off Gelsomina from her mother for 10,000 lire so she can replace Rosa as his assistant. The mother is in tears to see her second daughter leave, but she accepts the money sine she has younger children to think of. Zampanò has no problems with having to train a new assistant, since as he puts it, he can even train dogs.
Zampanò’s act is impressive, but fairly simple. In front of whatever crowd he can find in small towns, he places a small chain around his body and breaks it off by expanding his chest. Gelsomina’s job is to dress like a clown and play the drum roll before he performs his trick. When she has trouble getting the rhythm right, he hits her with a stick. As he said, he sees her as his dog.
Eventually Gelsomina reaches her breaking point and tries to leave him, but he finds her and forces her to stay. In Rome they join a circus where they meet one man brave enough, or in this case foolish enough, to stand up to Zampanò: a trapeze artist and clown known only as The Fool (Richard Basehart). As a man who cannot help but laugh at everything in life, The Fool constantly gets on Zampanò’s nerve by interrupting him during his act, mocking him in front of other performers and eventually throwing a bucket of water on him. This brings some much-needed humour to the story, but imagine if The Fool was to treat a circus dwarf like this. Then he would come off as a bully.
Yet this Fool is somewhat of a philosopher. After Zampanò is arrested following a fight, he comforts Gelsomina who feels she serves no purpose. Picking a pebble from the road, he tells her everything has a purpose in life, even the pebble. If not, then everything is pointless.
This theory is possibly why Gelsomina then declines The Fool’s offer to leave with him. In fact, she receives two more offers to leave the strongman, one from a kindly nun at a convent. She refuses every time, because she believes her purpose is to keep Zampanò company. Her reasoning is, if not her, then who will?
Indeed Zampanò does not deserve a person this kind. Anthony Quinn does the difficult job of playing a total jerk who deserves all the misery he eventually receives. What money he doesn’t spend on food or gas, he spends on wine and women, leaving Gelsomina alone in the street.
Gelsomina on the other hand is a kind-hearted human being who talks very little and does strange things, such as planting tomatoes in the field next to their vehicle even if they have to leave the next day. Masina’s face does most of the work, expressing infinite sadness when hurt, and joy when entertaining children.
Gelsomina and Zampanò’s journey definitely does not have a Hollywood ending, although it did win the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1956. It is required viewing if only to watch the two actors deliver great performances. If you are a fan of black and white films and classic foreign cinema, this is definitely for you.
(“La Strada” is distributed by Janus Films, but the DVD has no special features.)