Before he hit the lofty heights of the critical adoration of his most famed films 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini had already created one masterpiece, and it almost broke him. Problematic from the start, Fellini suffered a nervous breakdown before the end of principal photography and when it was finally completed and subsequently screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1954, it drew such deep division in opinion that it sparked a physical brawl.
Early criticism was that La Strada’s only interesting attribute was that it signalled Fellini’s break from neo-realism, but over the years that judgment has been quashed. His move into drama confirmed him as one of Italy’s finest filmmakers and a man capable of deeply emotional narratives.
La Strada is the story of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), a poor young girl, who is sold to the travelling strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to be his assistant, and right from the off, Fellini treads delicately into the melodramatic. Zampano is a brute, animalistic and violent he signals the dangerous broader world that Gelsomina is yet to encounter. Yet her wide innocent eyes sparkle with life and curiosity. She signifies purity of heart, unspoiled by life, easily wounded. To hurt her is to bring judgment upon yourself, and Zampano isn’t capable of avoiding this trap.
The camera watches closely as bullish Zampano tries to teach Gelsomina to take part in his act, with enthusiasm she tries but fails but Zampano’s stupidity means he reacts cruelly, confirming the dynamics of their relationship. His vicious physical punishment is excruciating to watch, he attacks ferociously but with no concentration. It means nothing to him, perfecting her part in the act is his only aim. The savage reprimand takes its toll on Gelsomina, she is suffering, as if life is beginning to batter her down.
The film is imbued with a wistful melancholy, though Gelsomina occasionally enjoys her whirlwind journey with Zampano, especially when they join the circus and she becomes friends with the effervescent fool (Richard Basheart). He is a man of hijinks and little seriousness and she brightens around him. But even here, in the circus, there is the looming figure of Zampano and she struggles to free herself from it.
The two are fused together despite their differences. Zampano is a simple, world weary figure who needs Gelsomina for her energy and enthusiasm yet refuses to nurture it. Gelsomina’s zest for life is supressed by Zampano’s brutish simplicity yet she refuses to leave him. The film is at heart, a thoughtful portrayal of the myths of life, it’s harshness and its excitement, the struggles and acceptances and the limits of human capacity and kindness. At once heart-warming but ultimately heart-breaking, it tormented it’s maker and no wonder, it is a tale that tortures the soul.
La Strada is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 19th June courtesy of Studiocanal