by Allan Fish
(Italy 1954 105m) DVD1/2
Aka. The Road
All clowns are unhappy
p Carlo Ponti, Dino de Laurentiis d Federico Fellini w Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli ph Otello Martelli ed Leo Cattozzo, Lina Caterini m Nino Rota art Mario Ravasco, E.Cervelli
Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina di Constanzo), Anthony Quinn (Zampano), Richard Basehart (Matto), Aldo Silvani, Marcello Rovena,
La Strada is a film that still provokes argument to this day. Fellini enthusiasts bickering for over forty years on whether his later gargantuan pieces of semi-autobiography (such as 8½) are superior to the smaller scale, neo-realist influenced films of the fifties (such as I Vitelloni and Nights of Cabiria). In truth, to truly appreciate Fellini’s genius, one must have it all, the small scale joys and the seemingly oversized but scathing later works. They are all circus acts on the same bill, a bill comprised for over thirty years of Fellini’s oeuvre. Certainly one cannot argue with Martin Scorsese when he said that, if you had to watch only one Fellini film to grasp his essence, it would have to be La Strada.
Set in the years just after the war, itinerant strongman Zampano buys the half-witted daughter of a war widow for 10,000 lire to teach her to be his assistant. Thus sold into effective slavery, she follows him with a childish sense of adventure, a sense of adventure sadly checked by Zampano’s brutality. However, the couple soon run into a rival attraction, the tightrope walker known as the Fool, and Gelsomina befriends him instantly, as they share the same sense of wonder.
We always know the film is going to end in tragedy, a remorseless inevitability hanging over proceedings from the very first scene. “If you stay with me, you’ve gotta learn one thing; to shut your mouth!” Quinn tells Masina with characteristic affection. What makes it so painful to watch is that Gelsomina is so childlike that you almost feel he’s treating a child with disdain, and when he starts to use her for sexual favours as well, one almost feels nauseous. It is to the credit of Fellini’s actors that it still works so well after half-a-century and in this most cynical of ages, in which sentiment is sneered at. It was made at a time when Hollywood stars were becoming the fashion in Italian cinema – in the same year producer Ponti made Ulysses with his wife Silvana Mangano, Kirk Douglas and Quinn. Yet there’s no doubt which is Quinn’s greater contribution. For me, along with the later Requiem for a Heavyweight, it’s his finest hour. Never has cinema’s favourite multi-national citizen of the world been so at home with a character, his final breakdown at the realisation of losing his one chance at love still tugging at the heart in spite of his earlier cruelty. Yet Quinn seems merely the sideshow here, rather like his never-changing one dimensional strongman act. The real star is Masina, and surely there has never been a more expressive female face in the history of the cinema. Some may now accuse her of going for pathos overkill, but it’s still a magical, theatrical performance, mixing childlike mischief, simple faith and Chaplinesque balletic comedy.
Of course like many neo-realist films of the earlier decade, there are sublime nods to Hollywood, such as the poster for film noir D.O.A. in the background when Quinn is told of Masina’s death; he, too, seemingly dead on arrival. Having gone blindly against the tide of his own inherent violence and imminent oblivion, moving from one desolate town to another, Quinn, too, seems ready to die, even welcoming death as he sinks to the sand, drunk, in the final scene. Now the road of the title has become a cul-de-sac and Quinn has returned to the beach. Not the same one on which he bought Masina, but the symbolism is plain to see. A symbolism heightened by the score of Nino Rota, so uniquely, playfully his as to be a source of joy for all film lovers (and even looking forward to the seventies Corleone saga with the religious processional dirge which Masina bows down to). Life is indeed a road that comes to an end for all of us, but viewing Fellini’s gem is an essential stop-off in that journey. Bellissimo!