La Strada (1954): Italina maestro Federico Fellini's case-study on the classical theme of love and denial

Fellini's treatise on love, trust, betrayal and alienation

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

la strada, directed by federico fellini, giulietta masina as gelsomina plays the drum
La Strada (1954)- By Federico Fellini
Our Rating: 10.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.1
Genre: Drama
CastAnthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart
Country: Italy
Language: Italian
Runtime: 108 min
Color: Black and White

Summary: A carefree girl is sold to a travelling entertainer, consequently enduring physical and emotional pain along the way.
La Strada is the third Fellini movie that I have delighted myself with—the other two being Otto e Mezzo and La Dolce Vita—and coincidentally the least Felliniesque of the three, and I dare say, the simplest to interpret. And precisely that's the reason why I have chosen it to begin of my eulogy on Fellini's lifelong masterful works. Fellini's staunch critics had audaciously deemed him narcissistic and his singular works self-indulgent and self-gratifying. Their myopic vision made them overlook the fact that narcissism and solipsism are the very virtues that give form to art and aesthetics. A true artist uses these traits to isolate himself from the worldly pursuits so that he can create a connection with the divine and attain a sense of enlightenment. He then pours his heart out and offers it selflessly in form of his art. Thus, the artist's apparent self-indulgence is actually a means to share his hard earned and newly acquired knowledge, gratis with the rest of the world. Fellini too like any true artist gave his audience what he thought they deserved: a product of his intellect and vision with the sole motive of titillating their senses. Vintage Fellini, La Strada is a living testament of an artist's commitment to his art.

anthony quinn as zampano, la strada, Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, directed by federico fellini
Zampano and Gelsomina 
La Strada is Fellini's improvisation on the epic theme of a beast and a beauty as depicted in the 1740 fairy tale 'Beauty and the Beast' and later on glorified by Victor Hugo's literary marvel 'The Hunchback of Notre-Dame'. What makes Fellini's rendition different is that even though Zampano perfectly fits into the caricature of a beast, Gelsomina falls short of the literary definition of a beauty. However, what Gelsomina lacks in pulchritude is more than made up by her celestial charm and naive disposition. These conflicting traits give Gelsomina an irresistible persona that makes her inexplicably amicable and desirable. Zampano on the contrary does not have a single trait that is likable and offers a great contrast to Gelsomina's innocuous self.

anthony quinn as zampano, the chain breaking act, la strada, directed by federico fellini
Anthony Quinn as the brutish Zampano in La Strada 
Zampano is a travelling entertainer who earns a living by performing street acts that demand extreme physical strength. Gelsomina's poor old mother sells her to brutish Zampano for a sum of 10,000 lire as a replacement for her dead daughter Rosa. Zampano ill treats Gelsomina, and despite her compliance and willingness to learn, uses brute force to teach her. She naively acquiesces even to Zampano's sexual advances. Zampano teaches her to jest and dance as well as to play drum and trumpet. One day when she finds him drunk after a night of debauchery, she decides to leave him in order to explore other possibilities. 

Gelsomina (played by Giulietta Masina) with the equilibrist Il Matto, La Strada, Directed by Federico Fellini
Gelsomina and the equilibrist Il Matto in La Strada 
En route, she meets Il Mato—an equilibrist with a great sense of humor. Zampano manages to locate her and forcibly takes her back. Zampano joins the same circus group that Il Matto is a part of. Soon fate presents Gelsomina with an opportunity to choose between Zampano and Il Matto. La Strada goes beyond revealing Gelsomina's choice and its consequences. It accentuates that even the most bestial of the souls has a latent goodness that makes him capable of love and worthy of being loved. La Strada demonstrates that the human emotions defy reason and are driven by instinct.

Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in La Strada, holding a trumpet, Directed by La Strada
Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in La Strada

Anthony Quinn arguably gives the best performance of his life as the stone cold Zampano. He effortlessly conjures up his brutish alter ego and makes him appear absolutely abominable to the viewer. As Zampano, Quinn manages to portray a caricature that has become the epitome of callous ruthlessness in cinema. Federico Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina perfectly fits into the sketch of Gelsomina. With the portrayal of Gelsomina, Masina proves her worth as an actress. Her inspired portrayal absolves Fellini from the suspicion that her casting was inspired by motives other than talent. As Gelsomina, she not only offers a striking contrast to Quinn's part, but also manages to create a special place in the movie. In fact, by the end it becomes quite obvious that La Strada belongs to her more than Quinn or, I dare say, Fellini. In the initial few minutes, Masina looks a bit over-aged for Gelsomina's part, but she soon enchants everyone with her peculiar charm and the rest becomes completely immaterial. 

Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina (performing in front of the audience) in La Strada, Directed by Federico Fellini
Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in Fellini's La Strada
The cinematography of La Strada is highly picturesque and presents the viewer with scenes that get etched permanently in the memory. Nino Rota's mellifluous music gives La Strada a lyrical touch. Overall, La Strada is a moving experience for aficionados and masses alike. It is a great opportunity for the students and lovers of cinema to get acquainted with Fellini's oeuvre before venturing into his more personal works like Otto e Mezzo, La Dolce Vita, Amarcord, Satyricon, etc.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

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La Strada Trailer

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  1. La Strada is indeed an ineffable movie amzing way to acquaint oneself with Fellini's oeuvre.

  2. Couldn't have agreed with you more!

  3. This is an excellent film. Fellini's films often focus on the exotic or
    extravagant. While that is still the case with this film, I felt it also
    gave a rare peek into the hardships of the rural italian countryside.
    At the same time he tells a rather unique and beautiful story about a
    girl trying to escape a life of predicted outcomes.

  4. Agreed! Amidst the pervasive splendour and grandeur, Fellini movies
    often overlook the beauty of ordinary. Las Strada is high on the
    humanistic element that often takes a back seat in the virtuoso's works.
    After I was done with the movie, only two words reverberated through my
    mind: Gelsomina and Fellini!!! 

  5. I do hope you have had the time to delight yourself with more Fellini films.

    I believe his early films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria were works that utilized the neo-realist concepts but did not attempt to be entirely neo-realist. Fellini was working toward the evolution of the Italian aesthetic as you would have seen in La Dolce Vita (1960) and taken to new heights in 8 1/2 (1963).

    Just came across your site by the way. I quite like it.

  6. While I have managed to watch a few more since I wrote this review, I would love to watch many more. I absolutely agree with everything you have said about Fellini's use of neo-realistic concepts in his early works. Whenever one speaks of Nights of Cabiria, I feel one more often than not ends ups overlooking the role played by Pier Paolo Pasolini in the realization of the end product. Pasolini's philosophy is quite evident in the whole movie. Each work of Fellini requires multiple viewings, especially Otto e Mezzo and La Dolce Vita. I can't wait to rewatch them both as well as others. Btw, I am glad you liked my site... hope you visit it more often!!! :-)


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