Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Proving that simpler is often better, Federico Fellini made Art Film history with this celebrated
personal work, that's both a distillation of his earlier successes and a cagey play for international
reknown. The simple story of a pure soul's travails in the harsh world has universal implications
that the director mines for all they're worth. Giulietta Masina's unforgettable performance
insures that there'll always be audiences wanting to see this classic.
Criterion presents La Strada in its pricey but rewarding line of top-quality restorations,
with a fine quality picture and good extras.
Itinerant carnival strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) buys the weak-minded
Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) from her mother, even though an older sister left with him before and
died. The rough and abusive man treats Gelsomina poorly but trains her as a clown-accompanist for his
pitiful act, and they do well enough to join Giraffa's circus. A talented high wire walker
called The Fool (Richard Basehart) interecedes to infuriate Zampanò with his taunts and
insults. Mocking and tender at the same time, he teaches Gelsomina the idea that no matter how
insignificant she thinks she is, she was made by God and has a purpose.
Insert essayist Peter Matthews nails La Strada's place among other internationally
successful European Art pictures by pointing out how earlier Italian classics were more often
than not boxoffice failures in their home country. Fellini's movie has American movie stars and
production values that
purists claimed betrayed the concept of neorealism. Neorealist
directors like De Sica and Visconti moved as quickly as possible into more elaborate films
both commercial and artistic.
When I had my first grungy 16mm school viewing of La Strada in 1969, we thought it looked
crude and unprofessional. It may have been the very first film I ever saw in a foreign language, as
even PBS hadn't yet started showing Janus classics (I think that's correct). Encouraged to be
our 'advanced media' class in San Bernardino's stone-age curriculum, our well-meaning high school
teachers gave us all the wrong messages about the film. Before the projector rolled we'd been
told it was High Art, full of important Symbolism and and Deeply Profound Content. Naturally, we
started looking at every event and object on screen as if uncovering hidden meanings in the Bible.
We were assured that the movie was extremely anti-Catholic, and that Gelsomina's travails were a
parable for the human condition. Zampanò's lonely end under the stars was Brute Man Lost
in the Universe.
The experience sent me off to film school already convinced that great truths
were to be found in old movies nobody had ever heard of. That wasn't a bad start, but it took several
years of film-watching and a gradual maturing process to get beyond the mention-a-director,
swoon-in-worship phase of film fannery.
Seen now, La Strada plays like a brilliant picture through its minimal attempts at
commercialism. I see nothing in it that's at all negative about the church. 1
The supporting cast make strong impressions - the friendly nun, the lady hanging her
wash at the end - and neither Gelsomina nor Zampanò seem as schematic as they once did.
Giulietta Masina's dimwit ugly duckling isn't a female version of Charlie Chaplin - The Little
Tramp was never innocent and certainly wasn't dumb. Although she's as cute as a button and
attractive qualities associated with feeblemindedness, Gelsomina never becomes
an idealized symbol. She is incredibly slow and childlike, and devoid of defenses. All she has
to do is witness something bad happening, and her personality cracks up. The catalyst character
The Fool pokes fun at her but isn't really cruel; she's a funny-looking ladybug that's bound to
be stepped on later if not sooner. His advice prompts her to invest her faith and trust in
Zampanò, a really bad choice as it turns out. If only she'd stayed behind with the nuns,
she might have been happy and protected.
After 35 years of unheroic movie heroes, Zampanò now seems less of a villain. The Fool's
unnecessary taunting is intolerable, and although he's neither honest nor virtuous, Anthony Quinn's
beautifully-played circus bum doesn't have a black heart. I originally thought his last scene was
the simple comeuppance of an animal. Now it comes across as the unlikely redemption of an ordinary
mortal and an almost fanciful stroke of optimism. In his introduction, Martin Scorsese talks
about reinventing the Zampanò character with Robert De Niro in several films, especially
Raging Bull. Unlike Scorsese, Fellini suggests romantically that redemption
is possible for a man like Zampanò.
Not long after La Strada American audiences began to associate Foreign Art films with the
cliché of dirty people living in dirty conditions, thinking about sex. While keeping a
gritty naturalism at the forefront, Fellini added his own temperament with the music of Nino Rota.
It's one of the great scores of all time, and not just because it combines a mournful,
Laura -type ballad with a circusy theme. It provides an active soul for the film's squalor
to rub against, and a dramatic backbone that keeps events from seeming arbitrary.
A couple of years ago, Woody Allen released Sweet and Lowdown, which is remembered as a
semi-docu musical biography but should have been billed
as a remake of La Strada. I don't remember anyone writing about a connection, but the story
of a travelling musician who abuses a retarded girl and then abandons her is practically
identical. The borrowing of an entire classic movie, emotional effects and all, is another
bad mark against the
deteriorating aura of Woody Allen's output.
Criterion's DVD of La Strada is a really terrific-looking copy of a
bona fide top cinema title. The sharpness and detail in the B&W image are excellent and the
original soundtrack is as clear as a bell, free of the distortion of the old 16mm prints. There's
an English dub track as well, where Quinn and Basehart speak in their real voices but Giuletta
Masina's new voice ruins her performance. Author Peter Bondella provides a full commentary and
Scorsese's introduction is unusually relaxed for him but shouldn't be seen before the film.
A second disc contains one long extra, an Italian TV career docu on Fellini called Federico
Fellini's Autobiography. Fellini seems to be on camera forever making with the arty
to the gushing interviewer. But it contains many great prime source bits
as well as film and stills from behind the scenes on several Fellini movies. On the set of
La Dolce Vita we see all the crew tucked into their coats, and then Anita Ekberg
steps into what looks like a chilly Fountain of Trevi.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La Strada rates:
Supplements: Video Introduction by Martin Scorsese, Audio Commentary by Peter
Bondanella, author of The Cinema of Federico Fellini, Federico Fellini's Autobiography,
a 2000 documentary originally broadcast on Italian Television, Optional English-dubbed
soundtrack, essay by film scholar Peter Matthews
Packaging: Two disc Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2003
1. The nuns at the convent
are as benign as can be. The religious procession that Gelsomina witnesses is contrasted with
visuals (a butchered pig, a big sign reading 'BAR') that
criticize the secular world around it, not the church.
According to essayist Matthews, there were political writers in Italy who condemned Fellini's
lack of a critical message on this issue.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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