Federico Fellini’s La Strada is full of indelible images — it is a road movie, after all, flush with the passings-by, pitstops, and transience of a world in motion: the beach, the city, the countryside; circus tents and street corners; big family weddings and secluded convents — but my favorite image of all is when Zampanò roars into a trash-strewn, near-deserted town square on his motorcycle/wagon combo to reclaim his abandoned charge, Gelsomina. As Zampanò, Anthony Quinn is like the anti-Brando: burly and leather jacketed, but rotten somehow, a vessel for mannish insecurity without any of the redemptive navel-gazing.
I think a lot of the film’s themes are tied up in this moment: fantasy vs. reality, stewardship and dominance, the whole nut of freewill and what it means to be alone in general. Gelsomina, played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is sold for 10,000 lira by her mother to Zampanò, a traveling strongman who performs his supposed superhuman feats in circuses and impromptu street shows alike. Gelsomina serves as his assistant — a role that fits her clownishness, a role that fits Masina’s clownishness — and also the victim of Zampanò’s verbal and physical abuse.
The two join up with a circus, where Gelsomina finds something of a kindred spirit in the Fool (Richard Basehart), a fellow clown and tightrope artist. The Fool shares an antagonistic history with Zampanò, whom the Fool likes to josh to the point of meltdown: “The circus needs animals,” the Fool tells him when they join up. The Fool will ultimately play a major part in the course of Gelsomina’s and Zampanò’s lives, as well as in the film’s divide between escapism and harsh reality.
It’s a heavy film, one of Fellini’s true tragedies, but it reaffirms life via Masina’s nonpareil performance. Like a female Chaplin, she’s a force of comedic physicality, at times childlike and distracted, and other times a mimic of subversive conceit. It’s one of her three great performances in Fellini’s films (which include Nights of Cabiria and Juliet of the Spirits), and perhaps her purest of all time. Fellini made La Strada in 1954, and though it’s not exactly the film that signaled his shift from Italian neo-realism to the “Fellini-esque” style of his later work, it does contain a number of the obsessions he’d return to again and again: the circus, the beach, surrealism (a small band of musicians marches through the open countryside), grotesqueries of character.
I saw a new print of the film last year, and while good, it did not compare with this latest restoration by the Criterion Collection. (This single-disc version, part of the “Essential Art House” series that began with that box set behemoth a few years back, contains the film only, with zero extras.) The contrast is sharp and ringingly clear; Masina’s face is something of a holy vision here, while Quinn’s, in contrast, is stubbly and earth-bound. You’re there, under the big top, riding shotgun, tripping the countryside fantastic, and then alone, suddenly and shockingly so, as Quinn collapses in the film’s iconic ending — a man on the beach with nothing but the realization that he lives in a world that he just destroyed.