Lawrence Russell

La Strada (The Road), 1954 dir. Frederico Fellini writ. Fellini, Tullio Penelli, Ennio Flaiano cine. Otello Martelli music Nino Rota star. Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina), Anthony Quinn (Zampano), Richard Baseheart (The Fool), Aldo Silvani, Marcello Revere, Liva Venturini

Fellini says this film isn't neo-realism but if it isn't, what is it? It certainly has that look -- a linear-time narrative in gritty black and white whose itinerant characters exist in a world of squalor and fatal consequence. It starts with Gelsomina (Masina) being sold by her mother to the "strolling player" Zampano (Quinn) for 10,000 lire as a replacement for her sister Rosa who has died under unexplained circumstances, then follows her shabby career "on the road" as the strongman's assistant, slave, and bogus wife in a series of realistic scenes that mark the beast and exalt the innocent.

Zampano's profession of gypsy-artist and circus performer really belongs to another time, another century, as do his values. He performs his trick of expanding his lungs and chest to break a girdle of chain in waste lots, yards and grubby circus rings in a simple Promethean fable of Man breaking free but his personal world depends upon the abuse and slavery of others.

Mother: Take care of her...

Zampano: Sure -- I even teach dogs.

"...for me (La Strada) became real when I drew the circle on paper that was Gelsomina's head" (Fellini)

Gelsomina is as simple-minded as a pet, although she has the innocence of a child with the human need for love and recognition. Although she is willing to go away with Z., confident that she can succeed as a performer, she is soon broken by his womanizing and containment of her artistic ambition. She can sing but her favorite melody is an annoyance to Z. She runs away from him, follows three musicians into a town where an Easter parade is underway. That evening she witnesses a tightrope walker performing his act above an enthralled mob in the square. Z. later recovers her from some tormenting drunks and she wakes up the next morning in a circus encampment. This is where she meets The Fool (Baseheart) who is playing her melody on a violin in the tent and recognizes him as the tightrope walker.

This melody, which is the basis of the sound score, represents the bond that exists instinctively between Gelsomina and The Fool who has had a previous run-in with "Gummy" (Zampano's character in the duck-hunter sketch) and proceeds to taunt him. He seduces Gelsomina, and although he gives her his necklace, he sends her back to Z. who has been briefly jailed for trying to knife The Fool. When The Fool is later killed by Z. in an assault intended to humiliate rather than eliminate, his death fulfills his own earlier prediction. Z. dumps the body in a gully, then rolls The Fool's car after him in an attempt to disguise the murder as Gelsomina watches and wails inconsolably.

Cut To: winter in a frozen, dreary town. Z. performs his chain-act to a small crowd but distracted, Gelsomina is unable to provide the drum roll. They travel a narrow road through the snowy mountains. Z. pulls his truck into the lee of a ruin, sets up camp. But Gelsomina remains desperate and broken, falls asleep beside a wall. Z. decides to abandon her and in a sentimental gesture, leaves the trumpet beside her before rolling his truck down the road and slipping away....

Cut To: Z. performing his chain-act in a circus on the beach. Afterwards he strolls the promenade, buys an ice-cream, then hears a woman humming Gelsomina's melody as she hangs out her washing. Z. approaches her, learns that the woman picked it up from a "crazy woman" who came to town and one morning didn't wake up.... Disturbed, Z. visits a bar, gets drunk, fights in the street between a fork in the train tracks, then ends up on the beach where he collapses in misery and remorse on the edge of the surf. He raises his eyes heavenwards as if following the transit of Gelsomina's soul or the Hound of Hell.

The action is tedious at times, with observable lip-sync problems caused by using American actors in an Italian script and Fellini's preference for dialogue dubbing. The uneducated characters are perhaps devices of a conveniently determinist universe, easy to manipulate, even easier to judge. Yet there's a historical authenticity in the milieu and a metaphor in the story of players in the world rather than in the theatre. Masina plays Chaplin into her character rather obviously, but it's undeniably effective in supporting Fellini's stated intention of creating an innocent betrayed.

You can certainly see the roots of Fellini's later move into cinematic expressionism -- not in the structure, but in his choice of characters and subject. A strongman escapes his chains, a Fool walks a tightrope... and their version of society is a circus.

Because absurdist theatre is so often a play within a play -- without revealing one or the other -- the action is always a mimicry of something hidden or something anticipated. Thus Zampano and Gelsomina are like animals, performing simple tricks with ceremonial intent and human possibility, but disconnected from society. Like the abandoned tramp/clowns in Waiting For Godot, they can leave the circus, but the circus doesn't leave them.

La Strada starts on the beach, and ends on the beach in a circular motion between being and nothingness. Zampano's contrition might satisfy the Pope, but the true extent of his guilt extends beyond his blunder with The Fool into the enigma of Rosa... and the death of Gelsomina.

© LR '76/revised '99


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