Circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) visits the mother of his now-dead assistant Rosa and offers her sister Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) the chance to earn money for her family. On the road the childlike and gentle Gelsomina endures Zampano's brutality, womanizing and drunken rages as he moulds her into part of his act. Like a faithful pet, Gelsomina refuses to leave the strong man's side no matter how badly he behaves. Performing from town to town, the pair lead a hand-to-mouth existence and eventually join a larger travelling circus where Zampano clashes with impish clown-cum-aerialist Matto (Richard Basehart). Matto forms a friendship with Gelsomina but struggles to convince her to strike out on her own. Eventually his relentless ribbing of volcanic-tempered Zampano goes too far.
Today we think of Federico Fellini as perhaps the archetypal esoteric European auteur. Yet it is worth bearing in mind La Strada was embraced by the mainstream, from film fans in Italy and the United States to such seemingly unlikely admirers as Walt Disney, not simply as an art film but a moving, poetic human story. By contrast its reception among the Italian intelligentsia was more muted. The film's relatively light sociopolitical content, restricted to the plight of Gelsomina's family that motivates her to set out on the road, earned the scorn of Italian Marxists who then had a stranglehold on film criticism and the arts in general through the neo-realist movement. By contrast in America La Strada won the very first Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Arguably Fellini's most personal film, La Strada established his unique philosophy and private mythology of the circus as a metaphor for life stirring tragedy, comedy and poetry together with a remarkably poignant and expressive performance from the director's wife, Giulietta Masina that evokes Charlie Chaplin.
Fellini was still concerned with narrative at this early stage in his career. As such he manages to weave a compelling, often lyrical fable that slips effortlessly from laughter to sadness while those trademark, Fellini-esque surrealistic set-pieces emerge organically from the realistic plot: e.g. Matto's magical high-wire act above the crowded piazza. Through the duelling figures of Matto and Zampano, Fellini forges a clash between the idealism and aspirations of the artist and the nakedly self-serving, brutal reality of the survivalist. Matto, who insists everyone serves a purpose, even someone as seemingly simple-minded and insignificant as the heroine, encourages Gelsomina to blossom as a clown yet her devotion to Zampano proves her undoing. To modern eyes Gelsomina's passivity and resignation to her sorry lot in life can seem less poignant than wearying. Yet one should view her character through the context of a pre-feminist era and specific early post-war rural Italian setting. Children lurk constantly on the peripheries throughout the film and feel an instant kinship with the childlike Gelsomina. Indeed Fellini is on record as stating his concept for Gelsomina rose from photographs of Giulietta Masina taken when she was ten years old. Therefore if one perceives Gelsomina as a child at the mercy of a brutal, uncaring father-figure like Zampano, her passivity makes total sense. She is completely powerless. All she can do is cry and whimper.
At the time Giulietta Masina drew most of the plaudits and with good reason. Yet against the odds Anthony Quinn manages to evoke some pity for Zampano. The scene on the beach where he finally breaks down is deeply moving. Embittered, despicable yet full of self-loathing, he is a man driven by the instinct to survive or satisfy his base desires at all costs. Anger is almost the only emotion he shows. Interestingly Fellini identified with Zampano the brute rather than Matto the artist implying that rather than the waif-like innocent heroine the principal character is the surprisingly vulnerable brute whose inability to transcend his base nature wreaks tragedy for all concerned, not least himself. The ghost of La Strada would haunt all subsequent Fellini films.
[On Studio Canal's Blu-ray and DVD special edition of La Strada you can find the following extras:
New Interview with director Julian Jarrold
New Interview with Peter Matthews: Senior Lecturer, Film & Television, London College of Communication
The Guardian Interview: Anthony Quinn (recorded at the BFI in 1995)
Giulietta Masina 1955 Cannes interview
Audio commentary by Chris Weigand on selected scenes.]