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Friday, August 15, 2008

Review: La Strada (1954)

* * * *

Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Giulietta Massina, Anthony Quinn

The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, La Strada is a magical and tragic fable from Federico Fellini. Unfolding as a tale of love, devotion and, ultimately, heartbreak, the film is a thoughtful character study of two people who should probably never have been together in the first place, but come to find that they can’t go on without each other.

The story begins with Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) being sold to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a travelling performer. Gelsomina is a simple soul, open and kind hearted and curious about the world around her, which she is exploring for the first time. By contrast, Zampano is short tempered and controlling and treats his protégée badly, abandoning her to go off with other women, beating her, berating her, and denying her the pleasure of playing the trumpet. Eventually the two join a circus where they come into contact with Il Matto (Richard Basehart), who charms Gelsomina and gets under Zampano’s skin, resulting eventually in a tragedy. What happens with Il Matto breaks Gelsomina’s gentle spirit, which would be heartbreaking enough in and of itself, but the real tragedy is what happens to Zampano, who doesn’t realize until it’s too late that Gelsomina isn’t just anyone, but someone that he truly needs.

Like many Fellini films this one unfolds in a picaresque style. La Strada, which translates literally as “The Road,” follows Zampano and Gelsomina as they travel from stop to stop with their act, having a series of mini adventures rather than one adventure which encompasses the entire narrative. The result of this is that rather than focusing the audience’s attention on the characters as they relate to the story, the audience is focused on the characters themselves and how they relate to each other, which makes the ending all the more compelling.

As Gelsomina, Giulietta Masina delivers a really open and sincere performance. This is a deceptively simple looking role in that the character is something of a blank slate, a sponge who soaks up the ways and mannerisms of the people she sees around her, yet maintains her innocent, child-like spirit. This is a character who is vulnerable precisely because she doesn’t realize how vulnerable she is, how likely she is to fall victim to the cruelty of the world. When she finally is broken, it’s enough to move even the hard hearted Zampano. As Zampano, Anthony Quinn has a similarly tricky role – both characters seem one-note on the page: the simple girl and the brutish man; however, through the course of the film they’re fleshed out, given depth and humanity through their interactions with each other.

The direction by Fellini is somewhat restrained in comparison to some of his later works – this film isn’t as heavy in symbolism as later works, nor does it mix the realistic and the fantastic in quite the same way – but is solid nonetheless, and the film features a wonderful score by the great Nino Rota, who collaborated with Fellini on a number of films but is perhaps best known for scoring The Godfather. Both the direction and the score go a long way towards supporting the very human drama at the film’s center which makes the story so compelling.


Rick Olson said...

I'm glad you liked this film. I'm a Fellini fan, but this is not my favorite. This is still when he was in the Italian Neorealist camp, but he got in trouble with them for this one because he didn't diss the church enough. His Fellinieque stage officially began with "8 1/2", although some including myself, would argue "La Dolce Vita."

Norma Desmond said...

I prefer his later stuff too, but I really love Massina in this one. Not a lot of actresses could have pulled off this part.