La Strada is a story about a love that has no idea how to express itself. We have two main characters here, Zampanò and Gelsomina. Both of them are in love with each other, but neither knows how to handle it. Zampanò converts his sentimentality into brute strength and vile behaviour. Gelsomina does the opposite; she allows herself to be beaten and made a fool of.
It doesn’t help that she’s a little naive and dim-witted. As the movie opens, we see her playing on the beach with her siblings. Zampanò arrives to buy her from her family after his previous sideshow assistant Rosa (another of Gelsomina’s siblings) dies. He’s an itinerant street performer with one faithful trick and one line of introduction. With 10,000 lire he buys Gelsomina, who is euphoric at the idea of travelling the country and learning new circus-styled skills. As the two ride around Italy in Zampanò’s rusty moped caravan, their relationship goes through various stages of ease and unrest.
Gelsomina, played by director Federico Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is a short and stout lady, with a face as round as the moon and eyes as wide and curious as a 10-year old’s at Disneyland. Her mind works a little slowly; she thinks not in broad terms but in short bursts of present-day events. One moment she’s crying at the abusive hands of Zampanò, the next she’s asking if he likes her. She’s unable to understand complex emotions and the consequences of her words. But she’s charming. I can’t say I’m familiar with Masina’s work — this being the first movie I’ve seen her in — but she possesses a likeable quality that allows her to roam the streets of Italy alone and still demand our support and sympathy. Whether she receives it is another matter.
Zampanò is played by Anthony Quinn, that actor who assumes control of his role without the need for excessive thought. He is by no means a big man, but here he makes himself look big. His one trick, the trick that enthrals audiences wherever he roams, involves him breaking apart a chain with his chest muscles, neither of which are particularly impressive. It’s this pathetic trick that has moulded him into the man he is. His caravan, his act, his outlook on life, his inability to articulate his feelings, all stem from from a certain mundanity that governs his past.
And then there’s another performer, The Fool (Richard Basehart), who sweeps Gelsomina off her feet with his dangerous high wire act and coaches her on the basics of life. He and Zampanò share a bitter rivalry, and their situation is compounded when they both begin work for the same travelling circus. Gelsomina, caught in the middle, is like the wide-eyed 10-year old kid who has just lost her parents at Disneyland. She’s unable to decide if she should work for the circus and abandon Zampanò, work with The Fool, or go with the odds and stick with the strong-chested man.
Fellini, who established his name with Italian Neorealism, moves himself into deeper territory with La Strada, his fourth film. Look closely and you’ll be able to pick out Neorealistic codes and conventions. The story is set on the real streets of Italy. There are no sets, no overt artificial lighting. The story itself is plain and simple. There are no complex action scenes or convoluted narrative developments; it follows the lives of two everyday people. But look even closer and you’ll discover a bolder approach. Fellini shifts away from the movement that founded him and hires known actors to play important parts. There also seems to be no rationalisation of time. This story, which is universal, could take place now, in 1954, or even 200 years ago. One of the forefathers of Italian Neorealism, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, doesn’t have such limitless boundaries of time. Its story is focused sharply on the events immediately succeeding World War II. It can take place at no other time, in no other city.
So you could look upon La Strada and see a freedom in its form and structure. But its story is one that traps relentlessly and presses down on the lowly. There is no freedom in Zampanò’s or Gelsomina’s lives. They are trapped by their pasts, by their presents, and by each other. I had a hard time feeling deeply for them. Usually I connect with dejected characters, but I couldn’t find anything redeeming in either of them. Even The Fool possesses mean traits (he calls Gelsomina an “artichoke”). Gelsomina is a victim of Battered Wife Syndrome, which makes it nigh impossible for me to offer sympathy. And Zampanò is so full of abuse that the movie’s closing shot is the only thing that saves him, which isn’t great comfort.
Best Moment | The Fool splashing a bucketful of water on Zampanò.
Worst Moment | Every time Gelsomina chooses Zampanò over her freedom.