La Strada (1954)

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Federico Fellini

Starring

Anthony Quinn Giulietta Masina Richard Basehart

Anticipation.

One of Fellini’s early, not-very-funny ones.

Enjoyment.

Undeniably powerful, but also very sentimental at times.

In Retrospect.

A wonderful performance by Giulietta Masina.

A welcome 2K re-release of Federico Fellini’s punishing 1951 road movie about an abusive circus strongman.

Men. Awful, awful creatures. In Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada, Anthony Quinn’s roving strong man Zampano is like a ripped and grizzled magnet for foul behaviour and deviant intent. He is a walking side of beef with morals, ethics and empathy trimmed from his carcass at an early age. He levels abuse at anyone and everyone who gets close to him, clearly the product of a upbringing that instilled in him traits of macho individualism and narcissistic pride. There is room for nothing else, except jugfuls of cheap wine.

This is why Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina receives the ultimate rough ride when she is coerced into hitting the road with him in his busted up jalopy that reeks like a pig sty. She is introduced as the dimwitted ugly duckling who passes around the hat after he has executed his deeply unimpressive act in which he snaps a chain by puffing out his chest. She is a doddering Harpo Marx-a-like, even wearing his tatty top hat and oversized trench-coat.

Where Zampano is a void of high emotions, she seems to be constantly overdosing on them – Masina’s trademark move here is credibly switching from joy to sadness and back again (and sometimes back once more), often in the space of a single take. Her view of the world is dangerously simple. If she experiences something, she reflects instantly through expression. She’s shallow and easy to read, maybe even lacking for complexity.

The story takes the pair on a winding tour of an unforgiving Italian landscape which appears made up solely of parched scrubland and is peopled by filthy, self-serving vagabonds. Gelsomina receives a small jolt of hope when a circus fool tells her that every pebble on this earth has a purpose, and so maybe she will make something of herself one day? She wants to impress Zampano and make him love her like she loves him, but her quest is futile. He is violently unresponsive to her advances. As she draws in, he bridles away further.

The film is about slavery and sexual humiliation, and Fellini reminds at every stage of the trip that the iron fist of the male rules supreme. Gelsomina is utterly helpless, as even when she tries to escape from his mighty clutches, she ends up returning to him. The film suggests that human companionship is everything, even when it’s built on a foundation of psychological abuse. It is preferable to loneliness, even when hard-sought physical contact is more often a slap than it is a kiss.

Nino Rota’s sentimental score becomes embedded within the narrative, its sad refrain becoming something of a personal anthem for the hapless Gelsomina. It’s a cynical work, sewing the seeds for the all-out hatful malaise that would become so central to Fellini’s later work and worldview. The futility of existence is weighed up against life’s minuscule moments of natural poetry, but you know which one tips the scales first. Its trite message is that compassion is good for mental health, and that the scars you leave on others will be returned to you ten fold later on.

Published 19 May 2017

Tags: Federico Fellini Italian cinema

Anticipation.

One of Fellini’s early, not-very-funny ones.

Enjoyment.

Undeniably powerful, but also very sentimental at times.

In Retrospect.

A wonderful performance by Giulietta Masina.

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