Watching Federico Fellini’s La Strada for the second time is fleeting experience and on both the occasion left me so cold. It’s been quite difficult to compare and seldom so revered a film by so important a director of Fellini’s stature. Just need to say that this movie is not a hard one to talk about, but on the contrary made me so indifferent and class apart of Fellini’s art of storytelling.
‘La Strada’ (The Road) is a 1954 Italian drama directed by Federico Fellini from his own screenplay and co-written with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. The film portrays the journey of a brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn) and a naïve young woman (Giulietta Masina) whom he buys from her mother and takes with him on the road; their encounters with his old rival the Fool (Richard Basehart) cause their destruction.
I have been influenced by Clouzot, Kurosawa, Kieslowski, Ray, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Bergman and so on-what’s intrigue and haunt me are those occasion of the critical count of film makers vision which still is lethally inspiring. Fellini has called La Strada “a complete catalogue of the entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.” As a result, the film demanded more time, effort and suffering than any of his other films, before or since.
The development process was long and tortuous; it was extremely difficult to secure financial backing; casting proved problematic; injuries, personnel changes and inclement weather disrupted the production schedule more than once; budget shortages constantly plagued the director and his production supervisor, forcing them to take extraordinary measures to keep going. Finally, just before shooting was completed, Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown that necessitated medical treatment in order to complete principal photography. Initial critical reaction was harsh, and the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival was the occasion of a bitter controversy that escalated into a public brawl between Fellini’s supporters and detractors.
Consequently, ‘La Strada’ is one of the most influential films ever made, and this film had won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1956 and also won Jury Award in the Venice Film Festival the same year of its release. In later years, Fellini explained that from a sentimental point of view, he was most attached to La Strada. Besides this film is one which had represented him so much and also tested his ability both from organizing, raising money caused him personal trauma and serious learning experience as a film maker
Ironically, La Strada is the one film in Fellini’s oeuvre that it seems practically everyone else can agree on, whether they are Fellini skeptics or Fellini enthusiasts. It’s the cardinal work of his career, the turning point from his Italian neorealist roots to the florid imagery and surreal narrative style that has come to be known as “Felliniesque.” For skeptics who deplore the self-indulgence and grotesquerie of his later films, La Strada is the career high point preceding his deterioration. For enthusiasts, it represents the filmmaker’s first excursion into the parade of gaudy carnival set pieces, uncomprehending men baffled by archetypal innocent or carnal women, and the mystery of the sea that would recur throughout his most distinctive films.
This film has the simplicity and directness of a morale tale and twitches with Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), a credulous young woman, learns that her sister Rosa has died since going on the road with the strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). Now the same man has returned a year later to ask her mother if Gelsomina will take Rosa’s place. The mother accepts 10,000 lire, and her daughter departs the same day.
Zampanò makes his living as an itinerant street performer, entertaining crowds by breaking an iron chain bound tightly across his chest, then passing the hat for tips. In short order, Gelsomina’ s naïve and antic nature emerges, with Zampanò’s brutish methods presenting a callous foil. He teaches her to play the snare drum and trumpet, dance a bit, and clown for the audience. Despite her willingness to please, he relies on intimidation and even cruelty at times to maintain his dominion.
Finally, she rebels and leaves, making her way into town. There she watches the act of another street entertainer, Il Matto ‘The Fool’, a talented high wire artist and clown (Richard Basehart). When Zampanò finds her there, he forcibly takes her back. They join a ragtag travelling circus where Il Matto already works. Il Matto teases the strongman at every opportunity, though he cannot explain what motivates him to do so. On being drenched by a pail of water, Zampanò chases after his tormentor with his knife drawn; as a result, both men are briefly jailed and eventually fired. Gelsomina’s difficulties with her forced partnership are the subject of frequent soul searching. After Il Matto’s release from prison, he proposes that there are alternatives to her servitude, and imparts his philosophy that everything and everyone has a purpose—even a pebble, even her. A nun suggests that Gelsomina’s purpose in life is comparable to her own. But when Gelsomina offers him marriage, Zampanò brushes her off.
The separate paths of fool and strongman cross for the last time on an empty stretch of road, when Zampanò comes upon Il Matto fixing a flat tire. As Gelsomina watches in horror, the strongman strikes the clown on the head several times. Il Matto complains that his watch is broken, then collapses and dies. Zampanò hides the body and pushes the car off the road. The killing breaks Gelsomina’s spirit. After ten days, her affect remains flat, and her eyes lifeless. Finally Zampanò abandons her while she is taking a nap, leaving some clothes and money.
Some years later, he overhears a woman singing a tune Gelsomina often played. He learns that the woman’s father had found Gelsomina on the beach and kindly taken her in. However, she had wasted away and died. Zampanò gets drunk and wanders to the beach, where he breaks down and cries.
This story has a fable-like feel reminiscent of, say, The Bicycle Thief. Yet unlike The Bicycle Thief and other works in the Italian neorealist tradition, La Strada offers us no more psychological or emotional insight into its characters than they have into themselves. Zampanò, Gelsomina, and the Fool are closed books; they are defined by their actions, not their inner lives. How Gelsomina can be so loyal to Zampanò, why the Fool is so reckless, and what exactly happens in Zampanò’s stony heart are questions onto which the film sheds little light.
In the end, it becomes vibrant that if the story has a protagonist, it is not Gelsomina, but Zampanò. Yet his character is so one-dimensional and indifferent, and we know so little about him, that it’s hard to be very invested in his fate for his own sake. Some meaningful insight into his character or his experience might make it all worthwhile. Yet what we are finally offered is not an insight, but a fact. Something has happened, but what, and how, and what it means, are open to interpretation.
Rewinding those days of 1950’s-Fellini wrote the script with collaborators Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli and brought it first to Luigi Rovere, Fellini’s producer for The White Sheik (1952). When Rovere read the script for La Strada, he began to weep, raising Fellini’s hopes, only to have them dashed when the producer announced that the screenplay was like great literature, but that “as a film this wouldn’t make any impact as a cinema. Just by that time, Fellini’s shooting script was nearly 600 pages long, with every shot and camera angle detailed and filled with notes reflecting intensive research. Producer Lorenzo Pegoraro was impressed enough to give Fellini a cash advance, but would not agree to Fellini’s demand that Giulietta Masina play Gelsomina.
The casting of the clown’ was very interesting and upon being introduced to Basehart by Cortese, Fellini invited the actor to lunch, at which he was offered the role of Il Matto. When asked why by the surprised Basehart, who had never before played the part of a clown, Fellini responded: “Because, if you did what you did in Fourteen Hours you can do anything.” A great success in Italy, the 1951 Hollywood drama starred Basehart as a would-be suicide on a hotel balcony. Basehart was greatly impressed and agreed to take the role for much less than his usual salary, in part because he was very attracted by Fellini’s personality and decided to work with him saying: “It was his zest for living, and his humor.” And not long before, Antony Quinn spent the evening with Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and after dinner they watched Fellini’s 1953 Italian comedy-drama I Vitelloni. According to Quinn: “I was thunderstruck by it. I told them the film was a masterpiece, and that the same director was the man who had been chasing me for weeks.”
Fellini was a notorious perfectionist, and this could be trying for his cast. Some years back at an American Film Institute student seminar, Quinn spoke of Fellini’s intransigence over selecting a box in which Zampanò carries his cigarette butts, scrutinizing over 500 boxes before finding just the right one: “As for me, any of the boxes would have been satisfactory to carry the butts in, but not Federico”. Quinn also recalled being particularly proud of a certain scene in which his performance had earned applause from onlookers on the set, only to receive a phone call from Fellini late that night informing him that they would have to re-do the entire sequence because Quinn had been too good: “You see, you’re supposed to be a bad, a terrible actor, but the people watching applauded you. They should have laughed at you. So in the morning we do it again. “As for the female lead Giulietta Masina, Fellini insisted that she re-create the thin-lipped smile he had seen in her childhood photographs. He cut her hair by putting a bowl on her head and shearing off anything that wasn’t covered up, afterwards plastering what remained with soap to give it a “spiky, untidy look”, then “flicked talc into her face to give it the pallor of a kabuki performer.” He made her wear a WWI surplus cloak that was so frayed its collar cut into her neck. She complained: “You’re so nice and sweet to the others in the cast. Why are you so hard on me?
Under Fellini’s agreement with his producers, any budget overruns would have had to come out of his own pocket, cutting into any profit potential there might be. When it became clear that there would not be enough funding to finish the picture, Fellini stated that Ponti and De Laurentiis took him to lunch and assured him that they would not hold him to it: “Let’s pretend they were a joke. Buy us a coffee and we’ll forget about them.” According to Quinn, however, Fellini was able to obtain this indulgence only by agreeing to film some pickup shots for Attila that Francisci, the director of record, had neglected to complete.
While shooting the final scenes on the wharf of Fiumicino, Fellini suffered a severe bout of clinical depression, a condition that he and his associates tried to keep secret. He was able to complete the filming only upon receiving treatment by a prominent Freudian psychoanalyst.