Ranking: #34/111

Director: Frederico Fellini (Italy)

Genre: Road Movie/Social Drama

Fellini’s La Strada (The Road) established a new film style of poetic realism in Italian cinema, built on the substratum of realism founded by the Italian school of Neo Realism. As in any Neo Realist film, the movie focuses on the economic struggle of working-class characters. The story is about a young woman, Gelsomina, who’s sold for 10,000 lire by her impoverished mother to Zampano, a fairground wrestler and strongman, to become his assistant in his travelling show. And, in Neo Realist fashion, the director uses black, white and grey cinematography, mostly shot on location, with some non-professional actors in the cast, to create realism.

There’s a somewhat grim, Film Noir-like mood to La Strada, with most of the settings looking fairly bleak. Fellini, however, does add some lyrical qualities and poetic shots to offset the general dreariness. At times, we sense we’re part of an allegory about the search for something higher than mere economic survival. There’s something hauntingly aspirational in the atmosphere and in the plot which seems to be just beyond reach, as if human dreams are never quite attainable.

Fellini, who had earlier in his career co-scripted with Rossellini one of the masterpieces of Neo Realism, namely, Rome, Open City, goes beyond Neo Realism in one other important aspect. He injects a deeper level of psychology and individualism into the film, especially in the way in which we get glimpses into the states of mind of the two main characters, Gelsomina and Zampano. They earn money as itinerant street entertainers but their relationship is, ultimately, loveless.

This road movie is about the struggle to get beyond the struggle, to find an elusive fulfilment in life. The struggle is symbolised in the movie by the iron chain strung across Zampano’s chest which he breaks apart in his theatrical street act. Ironically, though, neither of the two main characters can break the chains of their impoverishment.

Fellini depicts a universal human struggle with his distinctive blend of realism and cinematic lyricism.

Another great Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who was Fellini’s contemporary, was, at this time, moving away from the heritage of post-war Neo Realism. He was developing what later became known as interior realism, different in emphasis to the nascent poetic realism of La Strada.

It’s significant that Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown before shooting was completed for his film, undergoing psychoanalytical therapy to recover from his depression. One can almost feel an impending psychological crisis coming on in the movie as the circumstances deteriorate for the director’s mismatched pair of travelling entertainers. There’s a feeling they are trapped in their circumstances. Was this, in fact, a reflection of Fellini’s own state of mind in this difficult period of his life?

Anthony Quinn is vital and energetic, almost primordial, as the gruff, bullying circus strongman. Giulietta Masina is masterful as a tender-hearted, dreamy-eyed and childlike Gelsomina. Her struggle is to be someone in her own right. It seems she modelled her character on Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and he, in turn, was deeply touched by her artistry. These are universal, towering performances which have helped to elevate this film to the level of greatness. The amount of pathos that’s generated in their doomed relationship for the movie is extraordinary. Gelsomina becomes a sad clown, an emblem of economic failure, while all the while maintaining her personal innocence, always trying to see the wonder in life. Wonder is something Zampano is incapable of appreciating. She’s one of cinema’s most tenderly created and loved characters.

In her friendship with another street entertainer, Il Matto (“The Fool”), a high wire artist, her dignity is acknowledged. But Il Matto and Zampano end up hating each other, perhaps as a result of jealousy, and the strongman accidentally kills the high wire artist in a fight, an incident that shatters Gelsomina. She is never the same after this loss, and her mental health deteriorates. Eventually, the mean-spirited Zampano abandons her, leaving her some money and clothes.

In the allegorical meaning of the film, Zampano represents our base, selfish nature, while Gelsomina represents our idealistic and childlike capacity for wonder. Il Matto stands for our rational, civilised nature.  We are all on the road in a travelling circus made up of different characters, looking for meaning in life, Fellini seems to be saying. He is showing us, through the tragedy of his story, that without wonder we are nothing. Our lives and our artistry will come to nothing. This truth is brought home powerfully in the final sequence of the movie. Many years after abandoning Gelsomina, Zampano overhears a woman singing the tune his former assistant used to play. The woman tells him her father had found Gelsomina on the beach and taken her in. However, his efforts to save her had failed and she had simply wasted away.

Zampano failed utterly to show Gelsomina the love and respect she craved. Unable to deal with the emotions unleashed by this news of her tragic demise, the circus strongman gets drunk, gets into a fight and then wanders onto the beach. Lonely and filled with regret, he breaks down in tears. There is a slither of hope for redemption in this act of repentance from someone who has shown no morals and no empathy for others.

With this scene on the beach, the narrative has also come full circle, as the story opened at the seaside, with Gelsomina being called home to replace her sister Rosa on Zampano’s travelling show.

La Strada, as a melancholic tragi-comedy, part realism, part magical, ends as a parable about the search for truth, or, meaning, through art, through aspiration, no matter how hard economic circumstances get. If we are all in a travelling circus in an ephemeral life, always on the move, Fellini is saying, then the best we can do is to inspire others by doing something extraordinary. Only then, perhaps, will we break our economic chains.