Federico Fellini’s glorious fable La Strada opens with a bleak scene cleverly camouflaged by the promise of something grander. A desperately poor peasant woman selling one of her daughters to glowering circus performer Zampano (Anthony Quinn); mind you, this is after he informs the woman that the last daughter he bought has died. Still, money is money and the woman has children to feed and seemingly no husband to provide.
The new daughter in question, Gelsomina (Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), has a bright spark about her that makes it seem like she will see this troubling state of affairs as more of a great adventure than indentured servitude. “She just came out a little strange,” is the mother’s explanation. She’s trying to sell Gelsomina’s supposed ignorance as a virtue: Maybe the girl will not know just how terrible her life is about to become.
La Strada became a quiet sensation upon its American release in 1956. Critic Christina Newland, in an essay that accompanies the recent Criterion Blu-ray, refers to its “paradigm-shifting effect” for the widespread of its influence. It quickly earned a prominent place in the arthouse canon that placed a small cadre of foreign directors—Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut—as standing for everything sharp, insightful, and humanistic that bloated, materialistic, and subliterate Hollywood apparently did not. In that respect, La Strada certainly fits the bill.
It is possible to watch a good part of La Strada and see it as a kind of bumptious traveling circus tale. Unlike some of Fellini’s fellow Italian directors and their forays at the time into starkly political pseudo-documentary neo-realism, this story is, on the surface, less about the human condition and has more to do with the business of show. Backed by the swells of Nino Rota’s impeccable score, Zampano wanders the countryside in his rattletrap truck doing a strongman act and the occasional bit of physical comedy for random roadside crowds while Gelsomina plays the comic foil, rolling her eyes and vamping in white clown face makeup like a gamine variation on Charlie Chaplin.
Most viewers, conditioned by many stories of hardship overcome by pluck and determination, will find themselves imagining that there is a way out of this. There is something so yearning and unaffected about Gelsomina that it seems impossible that the story will not find some way to reward her for the quality of her spirit.
But unlike the later Fellini, who became a cinematic sensation in 1960 with his blowout satire La Dolce Vita and later became tied to that bigger-is-better extravaganza, La Strada brooks very few illusions about the kind of existence in which Zampano has trapped Gelsomina. From his first appearance, glowering darkly in a torn-up leather jacket at his new purchase, Zampano is presented as little more than a brute. “What an animal”, he is referred to at one point. “Bestial” at another.
Quinn being Quinn, Zampano cannot help but hold the audience’s gaze, whether workaday carousing by downing liters of red wine and picking up women in a taverna or picking fights with nearly anybody who crosses his path in a manner that seems increasingly sociopathic. There is a strong indication in one scene where he pushes a resistant Gelsomina into the back of the truck that he rapes her. Still, Gelsomina stays with the abusive and short-sighted Zampano, who seems to think he can keep wandering Italy performing the same handful of threadbare acts for pocket change.
There is a romantic aspect to how she puts up with the privations of their itinerant life. Rarely speaking out loud but saying volumes through Masina’s luminous facial expressions, Gelsomina seems to put no barriers between her performances and her life, acting out every day in the style of a mimic: watchful and passive, with outbursts of childlike glee and a recurring underlay of hunger for anything new (food, experience, life). Her passivity is such that she accepts every one of Zampano’s putdowns as the gospel truth.
“Why do you keep me?” she asks him. “I’m not pretty. I can’t cook. I can’t do anything.” No matter how awful life is with Zampano, she cannot imagine that she can do any better. The glimpses that Fellini provides of the economically ravaged postwar Italian landscape—bleak apartment towers rising out of the rubble, a stoic gloom in most people’s faces—suggests that she may have some reason to believe that.
Occasionally it seems as though Gelsomina may find her escape, or at least a way of living more purposefully in the world. In one expertly constructed sequence, she and Zampano stay the night at a convent. One of the nuns (Livia Venturini) imagines that the performers’ life on the road must be filled with wondrous fun. But there’s a warning in what she says—the nun’s optimism, fully gleaming but still tinged with an understanding of what dire conditions await most people in the world, registers as the mirror version of Gelsomina’s more childish lack of understanding.
The nun has her own wandering life (the order moves every two years so that they “don’t get too attached to the things of this world”) and has given herself over to it as a way of serving God: “We both travel. You follow your husband and I follow mine.”
Most people would take that as a warning. But Gelsomina carries on. Joining up with other vagabond performers at a fly-by-night circus, she meets a tightrope walker known only as the Fool (Richard Basehart), who can clearly act circles around Zampano and both men know it. In between the Fool’s taking jabs at Zampano’s worn-out shtick and general lunkishness and Zampano trying to pound him into oblivion, the Fool tries to let Gelsomina know that there is more to life than her mobile imprisonment.
Like the nun, the Fool is a bright-eyed wanderer who appreciates the sadness of the world but stays on the move in order to keep those feelings at bay. Also, like the nun, he sees a spark of something valuable in Gelsomina that she either cannot or will not acknowledge is there.
The Fool is not that different from the audience, who watches Gelsomina bound about in her performances with a klutzy but deeply-felt joy. But in the end, Fellini refuses to romanticize even this rare creature. La Strada does not vary its style as the story turns dourer and wrenching. The camerawork, which at first looked bright and pristine, then looks pitiless. The score, which initially sounded fulsomely romantic later sounds wrenchingly dirge-like.
After seeing example after example of Zampano’s inhumanity, Gelsomina keeps herself tied to him. Her refusal to leave is frustrating to other characters like the Fool. But the beauty of Fellini’s vision here is its willingness to give Gelsomina some sense of agency in the end. She was bought out of a wretched state of near-starvation poverty and lacks any marketable skills, except for silent clowning and some rudimentary trumpet playing. Can she be blamed for being convinced that this rough state of affairs is the best she could hope for?