DVD Review Of La Strada

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/8/07


  Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s 1954 black and white film La Strada (The Road) is one of those films that is midway between his early Neo-Realism and his later Magical Realism, with touches of both aplenty. It made both him and its female lead, his wife Giulieta Masina, stars, won the 1954 Venice Film Festival’s top award and the 1956 Best Foreign Picture Academy Award, yet there is something missing from it. It is a good film, arguably a very good or near-great film, but it is definitely not a great film. It lacks the intellectual and artistic depth that the couple’s next famed collaboration, Nights Of Cabiria, three years later, would have. In a sense, those critics who have called it a simple fable are correct, but even the greatest of fables cannot compare with the greatest of novels, especially those modern masterpieces, for a novel takes an in-depth 360° spin around life, and within life, whereas fables and this film often rely too strongly on archetypes, schmaltz, and sentimentality. It is not a reworking of The Beauty And The Beast tale, either, for it’s not really a love story, but a loveless story, in the sense of the human denial of love. Granted, it’s a mark of Fellini’s consummate filmic skill that one is so easily emotionally manipulated, to the point that most viewers even care about the wretched Zampano at the film’s end. But, mastering puppetry is not the same as producing good art. If it was the old Lassie American tv shows from the 1950s and 1960s would be right alongside The Odyssey and Guernica in the pantheon of great human artworks. Yet, Fellini is so great a filmmaker that even where his art is not top notch it can inspire admiration for its excellence.

  While watching this film, two other films stuck out in my mind, not including Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria, and that was one of Kirk Douglas’s earliest starring roles in the 1949 boxing film Champion, where the importance of a beachside setting, and the ultimate comeuppance of a brute are also central themes, and also Woody Allen’s neglected 1999 gem Sweet And Lowdown, another road picture where an egoistic male character, played by Sean Penn, lets the woman he loves, but cannot admit he does, played by Samantha Morton, slip away from him, then has a violent emotional reaction to end the film.

  La Strada shows Fellini almost in utero, or in the birth canal, on his way out to becoming the later showman Fellini of the 1960s and 1970s, as symbolism creeps into his seemingly Neo-Realistic tale of a wannabe circus strongman character, Zampano (Anthony Quinn)- the man with ‘lungs of steel’, whose schtick is popping an iron chain with his chest’s expansion, but is really just a low level street parody of such, and the mentally deficient young woman, Gelsomina (Masina), he buys from a poor Italian family for about $10, or ten thousand lire. We soon find out that she is the second daughter that the brute has purchased from them. The older sister of Gelsomina, Rosa, never seen in the film, but whose presence has a profound impact, was earlier purchased and died. We never learn how, but suspect that it had something to do with Zampano’s rage at a possible affair she had with a character the film later introduces, Richard Basehart’s nameless The Fool, a high wire performer who needles Zampano relentlessly, recklessly, and always gets the dumb brute reaction he desires.

  As in Nights Of Cabiria, this film is a picaresque that simply follows these poor souls across Italy in Zampano’s bedraggled little caravan/covered wagon, towed by his cheap motorcycle. Despite his early rape of her, his cheating on her, his physical and emotional abuse, Gelsomina somehow feels that she has a duty to Zampano- perhaps out of family honor, or the fact that he often claims her as a common law wife to strangers who might frown upon a young woman living so reckless a life with an obviously older man. We never really find out why. Of course, women often masochistically stay with men who use and abuse them for they lack the self-confidence and self-knowledge to leave. In this sense, La Strada is clearly a realistic film, psychologically speaking.

  On the plus side, Zampano does teach Gelsomina a trade, being an entertainer, and she quickly becomes the star of their act, as Masina’s affinities to Charlie Chaplin, which would haunt her career, are clearly seen in an early scene where Zampano gives he some outfits, and she chooses a black bowler quite like The Tramp’s, and even makes Chaplinesque facial and bodily motions. When she finally leaves Zampano, she first encounters The Fool, with his high wire act, as hundreds watch him in a town square. We cannot tell whether she is smitten with him romantically, or merely fascinatedly, as a child. Zampano soon retrieves her and forces her back into his employ, and the two join a traveling circus, where The Fool, an unexplainedly bitter man, is now performing. The antipathy between the two men is palpable, and Zampano won’t even let Gelsomina perform a musical act with him, with her trumpet, to make some extra money. The final straw between them comes when The Fool heckles Zampano’s strongman routine at the circus. After a few more scenes, Zampano even tries to kill The Fool, and is carted off to jail for using a knife.

  Then comes one of the best scenes in the film, where The Fool, later that night, displays humor and cruelty, wisdom and arrogance, by mocking Gelsomina’s looks, her feelings for Zampano and his for her, offers her a job on the road with him, after the circus has offered her a job- after banning both Zampano and The Fool from their employ, and he may be expressing sexual feelings of love for her, yet knows that he cannot compete for her heart with Zampano- whatever bizarre hold the brute has on her. He even seems to have a perverse sort of affection and contemptuous admiration for Zampano, and finally wishes Gelsomina to stay with him, and improve his enemy’s miserable life, as her own purpose, for the most important thing he imparts to her is a sense of self-worth by declaring that even a pebble has a purpose in the universe. He says, ‘Everything in this world is good for something….If it were useless, then everything would be useless- even the stars.’ Gelsomina recognizes this, if not intellectually then emotionally, and feels she belongs with Zampano. The Fool realizes this, as well, and drives her to the jail where Zampano will be released in the morning, and leaves her, but not before giving her a necklace to remember him by. What makes the scenes between The Fool and Gelsomina special is not because it is so philosophically deep, but it’s a poor man’s version of philosophy borne out of a need for simple human kindness that The Fool is loath to show, but does anyway, even if it aids his foe.

  After Zampano is released, the pair travel to and stay at a convent, with kindly nuns, for a night, where Zampano is unable to even hold a conversation, and tries to steal some gold pieces, while Gelsomina ponders life at the convent. The two hit the road again, and encounter The Fool’s car, with a flat tire on the side of a road. Zampano attacks him, and accidentally kills The Fool. He dumps the body in a ravine, and also pushes the car over the side. While never mentioned, it is likely that the antagonism between the two men resulted from a similar ending for Gelsomina’s sister, Rosa, at the hands of Zampano, who like Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, also does not realize his own strength, for his shock at The Fool’s death seems genuine. He even later states to Gelsomina that he only hit him twice, although clearly he is rationalizing, for three or more punches are seen onscreen. In many ways, this film is much like Steinbeck’s other Great Depression era classic, The Grapes Of Wrath, in that a poor life on the road seems to always lead to death.

  Not only has Zampano literally killed his enemy, but Gelsomina’s sprit, as she slips into a depression that lasts weeks, for winter arrives, and the descent into coldness is a good metaphor for Gelsomina’s emotional anomy. She recovers a bit, as spring arrives, and Zampano even expresses regret for killing The Fool. But, seeing that there has been something irreparably wronged in her, he offers to take her back to her mother. She refuses, so he abandons her as she sleeps, and pushes his caravan silently away. We are not sure whether this is merely the cad in him, or his trying to spare her more of his own uncontrollable fury, but we suspect it’s the latter, as he covers her up with a blanket, leaves her some food and money, and even leaves her the trumpet she has desired playing throughout the whole film.

  The final scenes take place at least four or five years later, for we see Zampano is part of another circus, with another female helper, but he is older, has more gray in his hair, and seems more ragged and tired. At the town the circus stops in, he overhears a woman singing a song while out hanging her wash. It is the famed theme song from the film, that started out as The Fool’s theme, became Gelsomina’s, and now has made it to the washerwoman. He asks her where she learned that tune, and she tells him a strange woman with a trumpet, who was there several years ago and died, used to play it. She was ill, simply withered away, and was buried by the town. Hearing this, we see Quinn act wonderfully without words, still the unemotive brute, yet trying to feel. He wanders away, goes through the motions of his tired old act of popping a chain with his chest’s expansion, and gets into a drunken brawl at a bar. The last scene of the film is silent, save for the theme song, now all Zampano’s, as he weeps helplessly on a beach at night.

  While Fellini and Masina benefited the most from this film, the movie really is Quinn’s character’s tale. We see Zampano grow the most, learning a little of human feeling, while The Fool remains the flirty wiseass till his end- albeit veined with cruelty and spite, and Gelsomina never grows beyond her quirky self. That Quinn, by then a solidly bankable Hollywood star, would take on such a complex role, often acting with just grunts, body movements, and his eyes, in such a despicable character, shows the faith he had in the young Fellini- then directing only his fourth full film. His performance dominates the film. Masina is very good, as the eternally mugging and plastic faced Gelsomina, but there is a lack of depth to her character, even as there is the suspicion she is never as naïve as she portrays. In a remake, Gelsomina would probably be declared bipolar, and zonked up on pills. The full range of Masina’s acting abilities would have to wait a few years till the older and more world-weary role she had in Nights Of Cabiria.

  La Strada has often been reduced by critics to either a simplistic Christian morality play, or conflated out to be some existential Greek drama involving the three main characters as representations of primal elements, or other such nonsense. The often stolid Pauline Kael once declared that Zampano was the Body, Gelsomina the Soul, and The Fool was the Mind. Well, duh, that’s true with almost any trio of characters in a story, and akin to telling us that Eden is Paradise, the Serpent Temptation, and Eve Innocence. It says all while saying absolutely nothing of depth nor clarity, but is too typical of what passes for real criticism these days. Yet, the three leads are clearly not so simplistically sketched. They are not mere archetypes, and the tale’s circular narrative- beginning and ending on a beach- is clearly something that places the film in a modernist context, not a wholly mythical one.

  The DVD comes in two disks, and has English subtitles with the Italian soundtrack, and thankfully comes with an English dubbed soundtrack featuring the real voices of Quinn and Basehart. One failing is a minute or two of flubbed dubbing, and silence, a few minutes into the film, due to the original American cut being a minute or so shorter than the Italian version, thus there being no English language version. Some parts are silent and others are filled in with the Italian soundtrack. Similarly, in Nights Of Cabiria, there was an excised scene that was restored, but never properly dubbed, so it reverts to Italian. The first disk has a thirteen minute video introduction by Martin Scorsese, the original American trailer, and an insert essay by film scholar Peter Matthews. The second disk was not really necessary, for it only contains a 56 minute television documentary called Federico Fellini's Autobiography: Clips From His Life, by Paquito del Bosco, and could have been burnt onto the other disk. It is a standard sort of Euro-doc, very patchwork, and focusing far more on Fellini’s later works, especially La Dolce Vita. The film commentary by Peter Bondanella, author of The Cinema of Federico Fellini, is one of those dull, simply read and heavily scripted commentaries that has no real insight nor spark, and relies far too much on banal insights like comparing the film to The Beauty And The Beast, and tossing about clichés on how it deals with ‘madness and death’, although he does usefully note the film was recorded with no sound, and sound was only later dubbed in, with Italian actors voicing the Quinn and Basehart roles. Thus neither version of the soundtrack is ‘original’.

  The story the film tells, penned by Fellini and his long time collaborator Tullio Pinelli, is first rate, even as it comes awfully close to syrupy, while the black and white cinematography by Otelo Martelli is solid. La Strada is not a visual feast for the eyes, and some mat shots as the pair drive around in their wagon date the film, even as they are better than the techniques that filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock were using in America. But, the film is renowned most for the film score by Nino Rota, and the theme for Gelsomina that, even millions who’ve never heard of, much less seen, La Strada, will know from just a few bars. Yet, it does not hold up as well as other, later Fellini films, to a modern eye. It does have more in common with 1940s Hollywood films than many critics would like to admit, especially in the screenplay and scoring aspects that link it back to the social realism of 1930s American studio films- those starring a James Cagney or John Garfield.

  Still, given it’s Fellini, it’s much better than many other films ever made, for there are those moments one can only get in a Fellini film, just like Ingmar Bergman can only give you psychosexual angst at such a high and poetic level. With Fellini, it’s those absurd moments that just stay within realistic bounds, like Gelsomina seeing a horse loudly clomping down a city street while alone and waiting for Zamapano to come back after a night with a whore, or seeing three country musicians marching by after she runs away from Zampano and is fascinated by an anthill, or her evocative theme song, first played on The Fool’s mini-violin, or the oddly poetic and comic poof of a cloud that explodes from The Fool’s inexplicably fiery car after Zampano pushes it off the road, into a ravine, after he kills the man. These are the touches that, even when a great artist is not in top form, separate that artist from all the many pretenders. Fellini was no pretender- he was the real thing, and La Strada is a very good film. But it was an even better augur.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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