Most film historians and critics credit La Strada (1954) as the first Felliniesque film. A major success which won the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film, La Strada moved Federico Fellini into the top tier of world film directors.
Like most romantic spiritual mythology, the appeal and accessibility of La Strada is found in its simplistic symbolism. Yet, the simplicity is also deceptive. My painting professor from art school once advised us that “obsession is often a good thing.” Here, we see the Fellini we have since come to know emerge with his obsessive themes of circuses and seasides in compositions populated by what would become archetypical figures. Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina is cast as the eternally naïve gamin Gelsomina. Masina clearly patterned her character after Harry Langdon. Fellini had used Masina, albeit briefly, in their first collaboration, The White Sheik (1952), and would extend that characterization in what is possibly their best work together, The Nights Of Cabiria (1957). Cast opposite Masina is her counterpart, Anthony Quinn, as the strongman Zampano. Quinn could be likened to Arthur Thalasso’s Zandow from Langdon’s The Strong Man (1927), or Eric Campbell’s “Goliath” from a number of Charlie Chaplin’s films. or even Pablo Picasso’s Minotaur. Rounding out the surrealistic trilogy is Richard Basehart’s high wire act as The Fool.
Zampano needs to replace his previous assistant Rosa and purchases the young, slow-witted Gelsomina from her mother. Zampano is cruel and brutish to his charge, but like Langdon’s waif, an inexplicable higher force seems to protecting her. Her pantomime act endears her to the circus crowd and she becomes the main draw.
Although the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is abusive, somehow it works, according to the divine plan, until the serpent enters Eden. Being Fellini, the symbolism is not as Biblically simpleminded as that, and we are introduced to The Fool through pagan entertainment fused with the symbolism of religious fiesta. He appears elevated, adorned in cherub wings, but angels fall in myths, and on the ground the Fool proves to be no angel. Although his concern for Gelsomina initially seems to be genuine, he is apt to manipulate her. The Fool’s relationship with Zampano is more clearly combative. He mercilessly taunts the strongman and Fellini injects a hint of a previous, cruel ménage a trois with Rosa (a substitute for Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam).
Long-suffering, Gelsomina’s virtue is a channel to the enigmatic infinite. She mourns Zampano’s treatment of others instead of her own sufferings under his hand (sexual abuse is hinted at, but wisely avoided). Gelsomina’s status as a model of feminine submissiveness is revealingly emphasized in a convent vignette.
We are privy to Zampano’s lack of self-awareness and empathy that stems from his own past abuse. It is not his continuance of the cycle, but abandonment of Gelsomina, which finally severs her allegiance to him. The gripping, catastrophic finale echoed Tyrone Power’s shattered geek in Nightmare Alley (1947).
The Marxists, among others, saw Fellini’s break from neorealism here as a betrayal and, despite all the accolades gifted to La Strada, the film and its creator provoked a sea of controversy. Like Chaplin, Fellini celebrates the derelict. To the subscribers of ideological pragmatism in art, the ultimate blasphemy was Fellini’s portrayal of post-war Italy filtered through the dual lenses of naturalism and fantastic parable. The director’s legion of early admirers would brand him nothing less than a heretic after his later forays into opulent surrealism.
Nino Rota’s haunting score and Otello Martelli’s ethereal, nuanced cinematography add considerably to La Strada‘s seductive quality. Rota’s theme music proved to be a resounding popular success on European radio for decades following.
Martin Scorsese helped finance the film’s restoration and introduces a Criterion Collection release that predictably is loaded with a wealth of extras. Among the supplements is an audio essay by film scholar Peter Bondanella, the documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography (which originally played on Italian television), and a second, charming documentary focusing on Masina and her off-screen, on-screen collaboration with Fellini.