I-The Cut: La Strada
A merciless strongman, a down on her luck and simple minded clown and a philosophizing fool are the three main characters in Federico Fellini’s 1954 La Strada, which is the saddest movie that you will ever watch.
I could have started this month’s review with the clichéd sentence “we all have a path or a road to follow” but to me La Strada that translates to The Road is where Zampano’s and Gelsomina’s story unfolds and at the same time folds.
Based on a story by Tullio Pinelli this 108-minute black and white movie stars Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina.
Gelsomina (Masina), the poor little girl on the verge of womanhood, and who Zampano (Quinn) buys from her mother is not free in choosing her own road. Like her sister, who died in Zampano’s care, she finds herself following the same road set by him.
We never know what exactly happened to Rosa until the end credits appear. Zampano is a traveling showman with no trace of imagination whatsoever. The only time the stern Zampano reflects a hint of imagination is during a comedic performance with Gelsomina in which he pretends to be a hunter looking for a duck.
The symbolism inherent in this sketch—Zampano shooting Gelsomina who is pretending to be duck—foreshadows the ending long before the relationship between the two deteriorates if one can really consider what joined these two troubled souls in the first place was a relationship.
“Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook,” Zampano with a serious tone announces to the crowd, “Thank you, thank you. Now, to do this feat, I must fill myself up like a tire. If a blood vessel should break, I would spit blood. For instance, in Milan a man weighing 240 pounds lost his eyesight doing this trick. That is because the optical nerves take a beating, and once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood.”
Even though Fellini scratches the surface of the underground world of road performers, what he reveals is enough to make us cringe in horror at what precedes a performance and the lifestyle the likes of Zampano and Gelsomina lead.
Life has been good so far to the odd couple, who make enough money to buy a decent meal but all is about to change when they join a traveling circus. There Zampano becomes the center of cruel antics played by a high wire performer and a jester known as the Fool (Basehart).
With no apparent reason the Fool taunts the strongman’s act as being uninspired and stupid. The tension between the two performers will lead to their eventual demise as the movie nears its end; it also offers us a good lesson in not being cruel to others for any reason, apparent or not.
The Fool however takes a particular liking to Gelsomina and tries to convince her to leave the strongman. The diminutive woman is torn between her feelings towards Zampano and her wanting to have more of life as a street performer. Later on Zampano does not allow his female sidekick to collaborate with the Fool. Whether it was out of jealousy or spite is something that we will never find out as Zampano’s motives and inner feelings are never revealed to us.
Even Gelsomina’s thoughts and inner feelings are restricted to her decisions, whether right or wrong, and that are driven by a one sided love and devotion to the strongman.
Masina gives a brilliant performance as the frail minded woman, who is torn between what she wants in life, Zampano and the Fool. Basehart’s performance is no less stellar than that of Masina and Quinn himself. His character is the voice of reason that sadly fails to follow reason.
“I am ignorant, but I read books. You won’t believe it, everything is useful… this pebble for instance,” the Fool tells Gelsomina, who naively asks, “Which one?”
“Anyone…It is useful,” the Fool answers to which Gelsomina inquires again, “What for.”
“For… I don’t know. If I knew I’d be the Almighty, who knows all. When you are born and when you die. Who knows? I don’t know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if it is useless, everything is useless. So are the stars!” the Fool concludes.
Nino Rota’s musical score that boarders between vivaciousness and dreariness brings life to Fellini’s interspersed images of street performers and their numbers, their moments of triumph after a successful performance and above of all their moments of despair.
Zampano, who is a scoundrel, maybe not by choice or intent, finds himself facing his own frailty, which is revealed to us in a haunting scene that anyone who has ever had a guilty conscious will empathize with. It is so touching that one forgets that he is watching the larger than life Anthony Quinn.
La Strada, a bleak outlook on life and condemnation of violence that presents itself as a character study based on a behavioral one, is Fellini’s fifth movie and like most of his subsequent movies the main theme is about the struggle of individuals against the odds that are never equal.