The theory on Fellini is that his artistic center is somewhere between La Dolce Vita and 8½. That with 8½ and everything after, the narrative veers progressively towards lyrical fantasy and with his previous work up to and including La Dolce Vita, he slowly creeps away from the neo-realism he was born of. La Strada, Fellini’s fourth feature, represents the first significant departure from that hyper realistic style, and with Giulietta Masina as the lead, how could it not? How can you maintain realism with a star that doesn’t seem real? Casting Masina, who had been married to Fellini for 9 years at the time of La Strada, was a stylistic choice, one that the success of the movie hinges on. Here is a woman who is a aware of all but rarely fully understands, she is fragile yet unbreakable, she combines the qualities of both Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s stone-faced man. In fact, silent movies must have been an inspiration for the Masina persona but I’m not sure she’d quite fit there either. If Louise Brooks is immortally modern, Masina is invariably in the past. There’s something old-fashioned about her, something simple too. Not stupid, or naïve, but simple. Enviably simple. That’s why, as the miserably mistreated assistant to a circus performer, she so completely elicits our sympathy. In a cruel world, we are given a person who can stand outside of it, but not escape it. We understand that if everyone was like Gelsomina, Masina’s character, we’d be a lot better off.
The boorish Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a circus strongman and traveling showman, comes to a seaside family and informs the matriarch that her daughter, his assistant, is dead. He offers 10,000 lira for her sister, the head-in-the-clouds Gelsomina. Her mother obliges, one less mouth to feed wouldn’t be terrible she says and Gelsomina goes off with Zampanò. They travel around Italy, she announcing him on a drum and he busting out of a chain that’s been tied around his chest. Their living quarters are not much, just a rigged trailor attached to the back of Zampanò’s motorcycle. He barks orders at her, knocks her around, beats her with a switch, announces her as his wife during performances but clumsily goes after any woman he sets eyes on in private. Gelsomina eventually runs off and comes upon a tightrope act, staring The Fool (Richard Basehart), who sits at a table and eats spaghetti 125 feet above the street. She is smitten with him. Soon, Zampanò reunites with Gelsomina and both end up working at the same circus where The Fool performs. The Fool mercilessly makes fun of the animalistic Zampanò and heckles his act, their antagonism gets Zampanò sent to jail and both of them kicked out of the circus. While Zampanò is locked up, Gelsomina is given the opportunity to continue with the circus and even to join The Fool, but she turns both down and waits for Zampanò to be released. The two of them once again hit the road until they happen upon The Fool by chance and Zampanò beats him up, killing him. Even though Zampanò is able to make the death seem accidental and they are in no danger of being punished for the crime, this is too much for Gelsomina and she can no longer perform in the show. Zampanò deserts her while she’s asleep by the side of the road and never sees her again. A few years later he is performing with a circus in a village by the sea and hears that she died not long after he ran out on her.
While the plot sounds melodramatic, it never seeps too deep into soapy mush because of the realistic style. This is just a sad life, cruelly stripped of all joy by the man who had control over it. Even The Fool, who represents to Gelsomina a happy life she will never have, casually puts her down and is too arrogant and oblivious to truly care about her. They have a meaningful talk during Zampanò’s jail stay, when we realize as Gelsomina does that life with The Fool might be better than the one she has with Zampanò but it will invariably be a disappointment all the same and that she’s better off keeping The Fool as an unattained ideal than go with him and find more of the same problems.
Quinn’s performance as Zampanò is energetic and forceful, he doesn’t seem particularly dangerous, more like a bully, but against the waifish Masina, he dominates her totally. Beyond the performances there are classic Fellinesque images, certainly the sea, but also the circus, seen here as less romantic than it ever will again in Fellini’s work. There are parades, including a small trio of musicians that leads Gelsomina to The Fool. There is also Nino Rota’s music, as always. Fellini uses music constantly, but rarely to comment on the action, in fact there are times when the music is working against what’s on the screen as in the jaunty number that accompanies Zampano’s sadistic switch-aided drum lesson. There is a little ditty that The Fool plays constantly on an undersized violin. Gelsomina eventually learns it on the trumpet as tribute. It is through this song that Zampanò learns of Gelsomina’s death. It’s a lovely tune, simple and haunting. Masina asked that it be played at her funeral. There are some that believe La Strada is among the very best of Fellini’s work. It isn’t. He had yet to develop his command of fluid storytelling, his lyrical camera movement. Much of Fellini is episodic, but none more so than La Strada which will often include redundant moments and visitigial scenes. It often drags, something one could never say about late Fellini and it lacks the immaculate self-indulgance that made his later films so polarizing. Some of that is happening here, for example the unaccompanied horse that walks by a dejected Gelsomina in the first third of La Strada, but he isn’t the maestro yet. Still, the narrative is crushingly sad, and the movie produces mysteries that are haunting. For example, why did Zampanò, after the death of his previous assistant return to the same family for his next one? There must have been something that drew him to Gelsomina, who in many ways is his intellectual better. They share a scene in a barn of a convent that can only be described as tender when put in context with the rest of this rough movie. Gelsomina tells Zampanò why she didn’t run off on him when he was in jail. She even says that she would marry him if he wanted. In this moment, it may be true that both characters love the other, but then its equally true that love doesn’t count for much in La Strada.