This 1954 film by Italian director Federico Fellini won the first ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It’s a transitional film for Fellini, moving away from the neo realism that chronicled life in post war Italy that he began his career with, towards the one of a kind magical, surreal Felliniesque cinema that he is commonly known for. As noted in the commentary from critic Paul Harris (Of 3RRR’s Film Buffs Forecast fame) these days Fellini shares instantaneous brand recognition the way few directors manage – an exception being Hitchcock. La Strada keeps a foot in both camps, with tattered clothes, and bleak austere locations, there’s not a lot of money around. Yet within this landscape there are moments of magic, combining fantasy and realism, where at times that it’s difficult to determine which is which. His films have a unique ability to unfold and you just accept everything, and get swept up in the emotion – no matter how outlandish.
When strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) buys Gelsomina, a strange naïve young woman (Giulietta Masina) from her mother, they take off across the countryside busking in the streets. Over time they develop a strange kind of unspoken affection for each other, despite Quinn’s brutish behaviour and gruff exterior. It’s a journey across the country, yet also as their peculiar co dependent relationship develops its an increasingly an emotional journey for both of them. Masina, (who was Fellini’s wife) is repeatedly told she is ugly and looks like an artichoke, yet doesn’t seems to mind, playing a kind of sad clown, a little not quite right, a naïve Chaplainesque character to Quinn’s world weary boorish hustler. They make a curious combination, equally drawn to each other yet frustrated by each others failings. Whilst La Strada revived Quinn’s career and there’s no doubt his cynical, inarticulate, raging Zampanò is compelling, Masina is a revelation. She does more with her face in one scene than most actors do in their entire career.
The score, of course by Fellini regular Nino Rota (The Godfather) is typically understated and lyrical, sparsely used, yet has an incredible impact – particularly Gelsomina’s Theme which with its mournful beauty reoccurs repeatedly throughout the film to increasingly heartbreaking effect.
La Strada is a film about outsiders connecting, about being special to someone and having someone special in return – even if you cant express it. It’s innocence verses experience, at turns sweet, silly, endearing and brutal, yet it has a big heart and as you’d expect from Fellini despite the grounding in reality, it takes you in some pretty eccentric directions.
There’s a great commentary by the aforementioned Harris who tones down the puns and goes into depth about his favourite scenes, finding joy in little moments along the way. He’s well versed in some of the challenges in production and really illuminates Fellini’s intentions, though is also willing to challenge him, calling him a ‘big liar’ at one point. The accompanying doco is pretty amazing too, with a reporter even interrupting Fellini with an interview on location midway through filming Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in Le Dolce Vita.