An unexpectedly emotional tale of the human condition, told by a cinematic genius
If I were faced with the daunting task of having to choose only one favorite film director, odds are good it would be Federico Fellini, the director of this week’s classic, “La Strada”. With his vivid imagination and virtuoso use of the properties of cinema, he created enormously personalized films, quickly became recognized as one of cinema’s greatest and most influential directors, and is one of just a few who elevate movies into an art form. Like “La Strada”, all of Fellini’s films bear an indescribable, almost circus-like poetry that can only be understood by watching them. His style and voice are so clearly his own that the word “Felliniesque” was added to the vernacular, which the Oxford dictionary defines as: “Relating to, characteristic of, or reminiscent of Fellini, his films, or his style; often specifically: fantastic, bizarre; lavish, extravagant”. Never a run-of-the-mill film director, his highly emotional “La Strada” is far from your garden-variety film.
I first saw “La Strada” decades ago in film school, and from that day on it became one of my absolute favorites, attaining a permanent spot in my personal Top Ten. “La Strada” uses cinema so expertly, it creates the kind of impact and emotional experience you can only get from a movie. A landmark in Italian cinema, this powerhouse of a film became one of the world’s most influential films, making Fellini and his wife (the film’s star Giulietta Masina) internationally famous. It won many awards and honors, including the first Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (a newly created category). It appears on many Greatest Film lists, and film directors chose it as the 4th greatest film of all-time in their 1992 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Top Ten List.
For such a impactful film, the story is quite basic. It opens with “Gelsomina” collecting reeds on the beach. She is summoned home to find that her mother has sold her to a traveling strongman/street entertainer named “Zampanò” to be his assistant, replacing her sister who died. As her mother puts it, “Gelsomina” is “a little strange”, and we quickly see that she is a bit simple-minded, possessing the innocence of a child and the heart of a saint. Other characters refer to “Zampanò” as an "animal", as he is a heartless brute unable to feel or communicate. These two opposites take to the road traveling and living in his rickety motorcycle-drawn van, and through their travels they meet many people including a clown/high wire artist named, “Il Matto” (better known as "The Fool”), whose path significantly keeps crossing theirs. The title “La Strada” translates to “The Road”, and this film is the story of how “Gelsomina” and “Zampanò” are changed by their journey on the road. I’m purposefully leaving out key plot points not to spoil anything for first time viewers - though any description of this film would fall short since its drawing card is the way Fellini delivers the sights and sounds. While the narrative is clear, he packs the details with ambiguity, leaving answers up to the viewer. I get new insights every time I watch this profound film. I also cry.
“La Strada” cleverly leaves its viewer ruminating over waves of themes such as destiny, cruelty, unselfishness, loneliness, the sorrow and beauty in life, and ultimately love and redemption. Instinctively knowing how to use cinema to full effect, Fellini brilliantly provides enough clues to stir up questions while never confirming anything. An example can be seen with “Gelsomina”. From the start we see she is different, and as the film continues it appears she is ignorant only of the human world. This selfless woman seems at one with nature – planting tomatoes, predicting rain, and even mimicking a tree just for the fun of it. Her purity attracts children and nuns, and her naïveté brings a sense of wonder about life. Fellini hints that she is saintly, as when she pauses for a second in front of a sign that reads, "Madonna Immacolata” ("Immaculate Virgin”) during a religious procession. Any murkiness found in the film completely captivates rather than alienates.
Fellini never cloaks life’s pain but instead makes it entertainingly palatable with humor and surprise. Take for instance the scene in the barn after the wedding, when “Gelsomina” is crying and arguing with “Zampanò” and in mid-sentence falls through the hay, out of sight. Unexpected moments and emotions like this help make “La Strada" (and Fellini’s work) otherworldly. At my very first screening of “La Strada”, I was entranced by a shot of “Gelsomina” sitting on a curb at night as a horse wanders into the frame walking down the street for no apparent reason. It struck me with such marvel, loneliness and humor, and gave me an appreciation for Fellini’s gift with cinema. I realized everything in his work is not necessarily intellectually understood but delivers emotion while adding to the world he’s created. His films are all semi-autobiographical, created out of childhood memories, fantasies, and dreams, and many elements in “La Strada” recur throughout all his films, including performers, the circus, religion, nuns, processions, public gatherings, prostitutes, the beach, a deserted piazza, and a farmhouse. A brief look at his background shows why.
Federico Fellini was born to middle-class parents in Rimini, Italy by the Adriatic Sea. Originally schooled by nuns, he had a talent for drawing, staging puppet shows, and a penchant for comic books (featuring traditional American cartoons by artists such as Winsor McCay). Fellini also loved watching variety shows, the circus, and movies. Instead of studying law as his mother wanted, after high school he opened an art shop with a friend, drawing caricatures on commission, cartoons, and writing humorous articles for newspapers. He soon moved to Rome, a city from which he would draw further inspiration for his films. In Rome he worked as a journalist, drew caricatures, and wrote articles for the influential satire magazine, Marc’Aurelio. He soon joined the magazine’s editorial staff and was given his own regular column. Through that job he met Bernardino Zapponi (who would later co-write some of Fellini's screenplays), and the famous Italian actor/comedian Aldo Fabrizi. With the help of Fabrizi, Fellini began working as a screenwriter, starting with 1942's “Before the Postman”, and continued writing a half dozen films by 1943. During this time he also wrote radio shows and met and married actress Giulietta Masina. With the end of World War II, his avenues of income disappeared, and to earn money he turned again to caricatures, opening the Funny Face Shop in which he made money drawing caricatures of American GIs. As fate would have it, film director Roberto Rossellini came to the shop to ask Fellini to help get Fabrizi to appear in a film he was going to make titled, “Rome: Open City”. Fellini did, and was also hired to write the screenplay which he finished in a week with Sergio Amidei. That 1945 Rossellini film revolutionized cinema, launching the Italian neorealism movement (which I explain in my Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” post), and Fellini and Amidei both earned Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations for the script. Fellini soon earned a reputation as a gifted neorealist scriptwriter and worked several more times with Rossellini.
Fellini began directing in 1950, starting with “Variety Lights”, which he co-produced and co-directed with Alberto Lattuada. It was his first collaboration with screenwriters Tullio Pinelli (who co-wrote eleven Fellini films), and Ennio Flaiano (who co-wrote ten Fellini’s films) - both of whom helped write “La Strada”. Fellini’s first solo-directed feature came next, “The White Sheik”, and neither of his first two films scored well at the box-office (the latter leaving critics bewildered by its tone, though today it is considered a classic). Fellini’s third film, “I Vitelloni” (1953) brought him success, awards, and found international distribution. Over the years, this neorealist coming of age film has become Fellini’s most influential, and also earned him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay (along with Pinelli and Flaiano). That led to, “La Strada”, where he began to successfully veer from his neorealist roots towards a more dreamlike world. In addition to its Best Foreign Film Oscar, “La Strada” won over fifty international awards, earned Fellini his third Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination (with Pinelli), and gave him recognition worldwide as a masterful film director.
His next two films, “Il Bidone” and “Nights of Cabiria” were also about redemption, and all three served as a bridge between Italian neorealism and a more modern approach to cinema. Towards the end of filming “La Strada”, Fellini suffered from depression and began Freudian therapy. After that, his films slowly became more and more introspective. He took the world by storm with his controversial 1960 masterpiece, “La Dolce Vita”, drumming up box-office revenue, heated discussions, and a myriad of awards. It earned four Academy Award nominations, including two for Fellini (Screenplay and Best Director), and the film won that year’s Oscar for Best Costume Design. “La Dolce Vita” made Fellini a superstar director. It pushed the abstract a bit further than “La Strada”, and two films later he moved towards fantasy with what many consider his crowning achievement, “8½”, which cemented his status as an auteur and one of cinema’s great artists.
Other Fellini classics include "Roma", "Juliet of the Spirits", "Fellini Satyricon", "Fellini's Casanova", and perhaps his most autobiographical film, "Amarcord", about a boy growing up in Fascist Italy. He won four Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards (for"La Strada", "Nights of Cabiria", "8½", “Amarcord”), was nominated eight times for Best Screenwriting Oscars, and four times as Best Director. In addition, the Academy awarded him an Honorary Oscar in recognition of his place as one of the screen's master storytellers. I remember watching him receive that Oscar on TV, and him telling Giulietta not to cry in his “thank you” speech. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch that speech HERE. Fellini remained married to Giulietta until his death, which occurred in 1993, the day after their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Federico Fellini died at the age of 73. His films have inspired plays, musicals, songs by artist as varied as Bob Dylan, The B-52’s, Kris Kristofferson, and Lana Del Rey, numerous films, and countless filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Barry Levinson, and Terry Gilliam. As proof that his influence continues to this day, I recently watched the 2021 Walt Disney/Pixar animated feature, “Luca” which contains several nods to this film. Its director Enrico Casarosa cited “La Strada” and Fellini as one of his main influences.
Anthony Quinn stars as “Zampanò”, the vagabond circus performer who breaks chains with his chest and is known as “the man with lungs of steel”. The chains he repeatedly dons can easily be seen as the self-destructive, brutish manner from which he can’t break free. Unable to change, he can only flaunt his strength and power, communicating solely through anger or violence. “Zampanò” barbarically goes through the motions of living and Quinn is fantastic at keeping him human, managing to let us see that this man is cruel because he is trapped by an inability to feel. You can see it from the start, when he teaches “Gelsomina” to play the trumpet and drum. As he tries to get her to perform how he wants, he quickly runs out of patience and can’t help but resort to force. Within the confines of an angry character, Quinn’s face expresses a multitude of nuances. Just by watching his face you see the ever-so-slow softening in “Zampanò” as he continues on the road with “Gelsomina”. After he finds her waiting for him when he leaves jail, a slight sensitivity emerges when he takes her to the beach, and later when he hears her play the trumpet for the nuns. It is an outstanding performance and I believe Quinn’s best (which is saying a lot for such a vastly talented actor). Though “La Strada” is an Italian film, Quinn was an English speaking Hollywood actor. As was the custom in Italian cinema at the time, films were shot completely without sound and later dubbed. Two dubbed versions were made of “La Strada” – one in Italian (with Giulietta Masina dubbing herself) and one in English (with Quinn and Richard Basehart dubbing themselves). I recommend watching the Italian version, as the inflection and color of the Italian language more appropriately add to the flavor of the film.
Anthony Quinn was born to a poor family in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. When he was very young, his half-Mexican/half-Irish father moved the family to Los Angeles and became an assistant cameraman for silent films. Quinn would join his father and watch such stars as Rudolph Valentino act before the camera. His father died when he was ten and Quinn dropped out of school and worked countless jobs, including becoming a butcher and a boxer, and eventually got a scholarship to study architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright. The two became close, and to help with Quinn’s speech impediment Wright suggested he study acting to improve his speaking. That's where Quinn suddenly discovered a passion for acting. He started on stage, and appeared in his first film in 1936. His fourth film, “The Plainsman” was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and on the set he met DeMille’s daughter, Katherine. The two would share a 26 year marriage. Because of his dark looks, Quinn was always cast as some sort of outlaw, villain, or ethnic character (Indian, Arab, Hawaiian, and so on). He had a breakthrough role in the 1941 film “Blood and Sand”, but it wasn’t enough to undo his typecasting. In 1947 he decided to move to New York and study acting at the Actors Studio, and replaced Marlon Brando on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Quinn received rave reviews and gained a reputation as a serious actor. He then briefly worked in television before returning to films. In 1952 he was cast opposite Brando in the classic “Viva Zapata!”, for which he won his first of two Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards (making him the first Mexican-American to win an Academy Award). His second Oscar was for the 1956 classic “Lust for Life”. After appearing in a slew of B movies, he headed to Italy and appeared in films with several top Italian directors, including “Angels of Darkness”directed by Giuseppe Amato, with Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart also in the cast. It was Masina who suggested Fellini cast Quinn and Basehart in “La Strada”. With “La Strada”, Quinn established himself as an international star. He was nominated for two additional Best Actor Oscars (“Wild Is the Wind” in 1957, and his most famous role, as the title character in 1964’s “Zorba the Greek”). He appeared in over 150 films and TV shows, and his other classics include "Requiem for a Heavyweight", "The Guns of Navarone", "Barabbas", and "Jungle Fever”. A notorious womanizer, he was married three times (including his marriage to Katherine DeMille), and had twelve children including actors Francesco Quinn, Danny Quinn, and Alex A. Quinn. Anthony Quinn died in 2001 at the age of 86.
Perhaps the most famous commodity for which Fellini became known was the endless supply of interesting and unusual faces in his films. As a caricaturist, Fellini learned how to boldly capture and convey personality via the human face, and translated that skill to his cinematic works. One of the most iconic faces in all his films (and all of cinema) is that of “Gelsomina”, as portrayed by Giulietta Masina. Her performance is considered among film’s greatest, earning an immortal place in cinema history. From the time she first appears right up to her very last scene, one can’t help but be affected by Masina’s supremely expressive face. As she leaves her family, falls in love with the abusive “Zampanò”, doesn’t receive love back, marvels at life and faces its brutality, Masina simultaneously expresses multiple raw emotions. A shining example is one of the film’s most famous scenes, when “Gelsomina” tells “The Fool” how she is sick of living and feels of no use to anyone. He picks up a pebble and replies, “I don’t know what this pebble’s purpose is, but it must have one. Because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless. Even the stars”. Her reaction makes the scene both heartbreaking and uplifting. From this performance Masina found international fame and was lauded as the female Charlie Chaplin.
Italian born Giulietta Masina had a gift for the arts at a very young age. She studied voice, piano, and dance while in school, and started appearing in theater in college. After graduating, she began working as a radio actress, and while working on the radio program "Cico e Pallina", met Fellini (who wrote the show’s scripts) and the two married a year later. Fellini helped start her film career, as her first three films were ones on which he worked: Rossellini's 1946 film “Paisà”; 1948’s "Without Pity” (for which she won Italy’s Silver Ribbon Best Supporting Actress award); and his directorial debut, 1950's “Variety Lights”. That led to her being cast in films by other directors and writers. In 1952 Masina worked again with her husband, playing the supporting role of the prostitute “Cabiria” in “The White Sheik”. After supporting roles, Fellini convinced producers she was right to star in “La Stada”. He wrote the part with her in mind, basing it around her humanity. After the film, she became a sensation. Two films later she had a small part in Fellini’s “Il Bidone”, followed by a starring role in Fellini’s classic, “Nights of Cabiria” (reprising her character from “The White Sheik”), and was awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, Masina’s career took a turn for the worst with the 1960 Julien Duvivier film “The High Life”, after which she worked less. A later high point was as the lead in her husband’s 1965 film “Juliet of the Spirits”. Masina also appeared in the 1969 American film "The Madwoman of Chaillot” with Katharine Hepburn, Fellini’s 1986 film “Ginger and Fred” (as Italian impersonators of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), and as the lead in Jean-Louis Bertucelli’s “A Day to Remember” in 1991, which was her final film. She also worked a bit on television and radio. Her only marriage was to Fellini, and after suffering a miscarriage, the two had one son who sadly died at eleven days old. Giulietta Masina died in 1994 at the age of 73, just five months after Fellini’s death.
Richard Basehart stars as “Il Matto”, a clown and high-wire circus performer better known as “The Fool”. As with his co-stars, Basehart gives a tremendous performance filled with delicate subtleties. “The Fool” is a character we want to like, and do, though like “Zampanò”, he too can be unsympathetic and cruel. He wears angel’s wings yet laughs at “Gelsomina” the first time he sees her face, and later tells her she’s ugly and looks more like an artichoke than a woman. “The Fool” takes his clowning too far, particularly with “Zampanò”, who he uncontrollably and relentlessly mocks. Like some of the classic “fools” in literature, truth spills from him time to time – most memorably in the scene with the pebble, when he gives “Gelsomina” meaning for her life. When “The Fool” bids “Gelsomina” farewell and hands her his necklace, Basehart shows such sadness and vulnerability, the scene is overwhelmingly poignant. He is absolutely wonderful in the part.
American born Richard Basehart began acting in the theater when he was twelve years old. He took a break for school and odd jobs (including becoming a journalist), but ultimately returned to acting in his twenties, eventually making his way from Philadelphia to New York. His Broadway debut came in 1942, and in 1945 he appeared in "The Hasty Heart” for which he won the New York Critic's Award as most promising actor of the year. Hollywood took notice and he made his film debut in 1947 with “Cry Wolf”, and gained attention with his third film, “He Walked by Night” in 1948. To avoid typecasting, Basehart chose a variety of roles, and appeared in a dozen films by the end of 1951, including a standout performance in “Fourteen Hours”. After his first wife’s death in 1950, he went to Italy and appeared in a series of European films including "Angels of Darkness”, "La Strada", and Fellini's "Il Bidone". He returned to the US and appeared in “Moby Dick” in 1956. Dabbling in television in the 1950s, from the 1960s onward it was where he worked most often. Basehart became most famous (and is best remembered) for starring as “Admiral Harriman Nelson” in Irwin Allen's TV series, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” from 1964 to 1968. Some of his other notable films include “The House on Telegraph Hill’’, "The Brothers Karamazov”, “Titanic”, and “Being There’’. Basehart also provided the narration during the opening credits of the popular 1980s TV series, "Knight Rider”. His last job was also voice-over work, this time for the closing ceremonies at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was married three times, including his second marriage to Italian actress Valentina Cortese. Richard Basehart died in 1984 at the age of 70.
In addition to Fellini and Masina, the third monumental element to “La Strada” is its score by Nino Rota. His whimsical and unforgettable music completely captures and informs the film’s circus like atmosphere and tragicomic emotions. His music is vital to this film and is used in a unique and inventive way. Instead of just giving emotion, it also supplies meaning. Rota uses several leitmotifs (repeating musical themes) throughout the film, and in particular one simple, haunting refrain mostly played by a lone instrument (violin, trumpet, and voice). That refrain is exquisitely passed from character to character and informs us of their changing emotions and growth. I have yet to witness music used in a film as ingeniously. Rota’s score became popular worldwide, that same year Perry Como adapted it into a song titled "Love Theme from La Strada (Traveling Down a Lonely Road)”. The score for “La Strada” cemented a partnership between Rota and Fellini that lasted the rest of Rota’s life and most of Fellini’s career. Rota scored almost all of Fellini’s films from "The White Sheik” in 1952 until “Orchestra Rehearsal” in 1978 (including "8½","La Dolce Vita", "Nights of Cabiria", and "I Vitelloni”). His music is an indelible part of many Fellini films.
Nina Rota didn’t only compose for Fellini. The Italian child music prodigy became a world-famous composer, pianist, conductor, and major force in composing, writing music for 180 films and TV shows for countless major directors and many classic films. Though perhaps best known for his partnership with Fellini, his most famous score is possibly for the 1972 classic, “The Godfather”, which the American Film Institute voted as the 5th Greatest Film Scores Of All Time. Rota went on to win a Best Original Score Academy Award for the 1974 sequel, “The Godfather: Part II”. Other classic films for which he composed include “Romeo and Juliet", "The Leopard", "Death on the Nile", "Rocco and his Brothers", "The Assassin", and "War and Peace”. Rota and his music were so beloved by Fellini and his wife, Masina requested trumpeter Mauro Maur play Nino Rota's "Improvviso dell'Angelo" during Fellini's funeral, and his main leitmotif from "La Strada” at her own. Rota never married, but had one daughter. Nino Rota died in 1979 at the age of 67.
This week you are treated to the work of one of cinema’s foremost directors with a film that leaves a lasting impact. An expert at creating films that contain some degree of vagueness, Fellini entices the viewer to project their own meaning, fantasies and dreams upon them. You can enjoy this film on infinite levels – as a fable, a statement about the failure to communicate, a religious parable, or simply as a great, highly entertaining movie. However you choose to view it, enjoy one of my favorites, “La Strada”!
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