La Strada, 1954.
Directed by Federico Fellini.
Starring Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Basehart.
A care-free girl is sold to a traveling entertainer, consequently enduring physical and emotional pain along the way.
Entire essays could be written on Giuletta Masina’s face alone. There’s a childlike quality to her puppy dog eyes, her ability to express such sadness with a simple tilt of the head, or exuberance with a blink. If there was ever a face for the big screen, it was hers, and with the re-release of Federico Fellini’s tragic masterpiece, La Strada, once again she can be celebrated.
Although married to Fellini, he never found a role more purely “Masina” than that of doleful reluctant clown Gelsomina. When news of the death of her sister reaches Gelsomina and her poverty stricken family, she is forcefully sold for 10,000 lire to manipulative, drunken strongman Zampano (an indelible Anthony Quinn). The two travel, performing in town squares to small crowds whilst sleeping in his rickety, dilapidated van. Sporadic attempts to flee are met with beatings; he sees her as less a counterpart, more a child.
Enter “Fool” Richard Basehart who ignites hope in Gelsomina. He teaches her a comedy routine with her playing centre stage much to the ire of Zampano who swiftly removes them from the situation. Their travels frame the film with a tragic melancholy, a grey cloud ever hanging over those brief jocular respites.
Whilst Fellini brings a bitter cruelty, Nino Rota’s score is-at times-jarringly sentimental. There’s maybe a feeling that it slightly dampens the callous masochism of Quinn but the film, up until the final moments, is never framed as a film about men, instead, it’s a scathing, sorrowing study of domestic/sexual abuse and patriarchal oppression. Rota mines Masina for her buoyancy and lends a repeated melodic motif that acts as a calling card for her tragedies.
Quinn’s presence brings to mind Richard Burton in Look Back In Anger, lugubrious and sorrowful in his desolation. Fellini never attempts to truly sympathise with him, instead, as the film comes to a close and Gelsomina finds hope away from his perversion, he is framed as a man broken sat alone on a beach. It’s a moment almost oppressively somber and acts as a powerful coda.
Yet it’s always, and only Masina. She is in every moment; her sorrowful eyes fill the screen, her small frame taking on a slight hunch as she is further manipulated, her presence hanging heavy even whilst absent. The appearance of Basehart as the kind-hearted fool only further places emphasis on her piteous dependence on Zampano. It’s a sad, stark study of abuse that, 60 years on, still affects.
Although Fellini would go on to make films that pushed the boundary of form and found roles for Masina of further complexity, he never made anything as purely, breathtakingly mournful as La Strada. It’s a film to be seen on the big screen and with such a lush re-release, it would be a shame to see it go by.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★