A half century later, it's still difficult to completely grasp the maturity and magic of Federico Fellini's La Strada. After all, the 1954 film was only his third full-length feature on his own. But as the recent two-disc DVD release by The Criterion Collection clearly shows, Fellini already was in full command of all the facets of his oeuvre: the specter of the circus (as played out in Nino Rota's score), the road as a metaphor for life, the ambiguities of loyalty and love.
(He was full into many of these ideas in his marvelous solo debut directing effort, 1952's The White Sheik, which Criterion released last spring.)
Many critics see 1962's 8 1/2 as Fellini's crowning achievement, and it's hard to argue with five Academy Award nominations -- unheard of for a foreign-language film back then or now. But there's something about La Strada that keeps me coming back to Fellini, who perhaps more than any other director understood how little we understand ourselves. Historian Peter Matthews put it best when comparing the two films in an essay, "From Neo-Realism to Magic Realism," in the DVD's booklet: "... La Strada holds a unique place in the affections of cinephiles. Love is the only adequate word to convey the tender, protective attitude this 1954 film elicits -- it remains the most purely adorable of the director's works. That's not a quality associated with many art-house classics."
And we all know the reason why -- or do we? At first glance, the adorability completely belongs to the character of Gelsomina, played by Fellini's wife and muse, Giulietta Masina. She plays a seemingly dim-witted and reticent daughter who is essentially sold by her family (as was her now-dead sister) to half-assed carnival strongman Zampanó (Anthony Quinn). Much ink has been spilled over how Masina, taking her cue from the Italian tradition of commedia dell'arte, was also influenced by the tramp character perfected by Charlie Chaplin. And, indeed, Masina's Gelsomina plays a clown in assisting Zampanó in their traveling road show. Her big brown eyes are constantly popping with innocent curiosity, and her walk is more like a waddle. But I also think Masina was channeling a little bit of Harpo Marx as well: the comedian as mute, always smarter than he or she appears to be. Regardless of intellect, Gelsomina clearly has the heart that Zampanó lacks.
But what completes La Strada, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1956, is not just the use of Gelsomina as the metaphor for unconditional, martyred love. Quinn as Zampanó deserves credit for eliciting a sympathy that few brutes could accomplish. It should come as no big shock that Quinn was just coming off a Broadway run as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and it shows here. Zampanó, with his five o'clock shadow, scowl and grunts, is one step above animal; he pretty much rapes Gelsomina their first night together, and he responds to her entreaties with a beating. He has no clue how to respond to her love.
In his introduction, Martin Scorsese (I could listen to him discuss film history all day long) sees Zampanó as symbolic of the brutality of life, and Gelsomina as the chance for redemption. "I think my ... preference for characters who are self-destructive, a lot of it comes from La Strada," says Scorsese, noting Robert De Niro's title roles in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Richard Basehart as The Fool -- another in a long line of "stock" characters used in commedia dell'arte -- is just as crucial a character in completing what feels like an unspoken love triangle in La Strada. The Fool cannot help teasing Zampanó, even if it means physical harm to himself. The Fool -- whose occupation, a tightrope walker, is equally symbolic -- constantly taunts his carnival rival. Just like De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, The Fool represents life's absurdities.
In a touching, and apparently misunderstood, scene, The Fool plays another key role as he explains to Gelsomina his own belief in the value of a pebble. "Everything in this world has a purpose," he tells Gelsomina as they both wonder why she stays with Zampanó, before he picks up a pebble in the dirt. "I don't know what this pebble's purpose is, but it must have one, because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless."
It's a rather traditional, simplistic morality, Italian cinema expert Peter Bondanella notes in his dry running commentary of the film, and it incensed Fellini's "leftist critics." (The original treatment also called for a more literary allusion, to Dante, but Fellini scorned cinema as literary adaptation and removed the passages.) The critics miss the point of the story, Bondanella says, further explaining that the parable only serves as a catalyst for Gelsomina to affirm her worth and go off on a tirade about Zampanó and his lack of appreciation for her.
These are the kind of subtle layers at work in La Strada, as good a Fellini movie as you'll find.