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.
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 experimental with 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 displays only 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 director-speak 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:
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.