Over the course of his illustrious filmmaking career, Italian auteur Federico Fellini became emblematic of surreal self-indulgence. His best-known works, like La Dolce Vita and 8½, were often brought up in public discourse as prime examples of Fellini’s characteristic oneiric style. La Strada predates his descent into the world of dreams and nightmares; it exists in a liminal space between the tradition of Italian neorealism and Fellini’s future experiments with the cinematic medium.
Starring the endlessly charming Giulietta Masina as a young, naive girl called Gelsomina, La Strada chronicles the absurd brutality of life by following Gelsomina’s misadventures after she is sold to an abusive strongman named Zampanò (played by Anthony Quinn) by her own mother. Through simple but emotionally stirring narrative arcs, Fellini manages to put forth a devastating analysis of masculinity, love, existentialism, and so much more.
La Strada serves as a brilliant deconstruction of the road film genre, showing us that the characters may flit from one landscape to another, but they desperately cling onto their own fragile identities. Imbued with the spirit of the carnivalesque, Zampanò and Gelsomina remain entangled in the same cycle of tenderness and violence despite the changing sceneries. After a certain point, the tragicomically mismatched duo are no longer capable of navigating the time and space co-ordinates of the physical world. Instead, they spiral down the caverns of their own spiritual voids.
“At the beginning I had only a confused feeling,” Fellini recalled, “A kind of tone that lurked, which made me melancholy and gave me a diffused sense of guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why. But once this feeling crystallised, the story came easily, as if it had been there waiting to be found.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fellini provided evidence that the artistic imagination was enough to create cinematic magic even in the absence of fanciful camerawork. Fellini’s constructions are unforgettable, especially Gelsomina – an overwhelmingly innocent sprite who is forced to dance and wear clown paint under the tyranny of Zampanò. Even though she is a part of a travelling circus act, Gelsomina takes the time to plant tomato seeds in unfamiliar environments only to be cruelly displaced the very next moment.
The characters aren’t just a part of the essence of La Strada, they are the essence. The strong and silent stereotype of Zampanò represents the tortured brute who is locked inside the dated and problematic masculine traits of physical abuse, casual misogyny and sexual violence. He chooses to hurtle through life with the help of his strength but falters when he meets his antithesis – the easy-going clown (Richard Basehart) who floats along the labyrinths of life with laughable ease. The conflict between the two isn’t just a comical exchange; it is an ideological dispute between two schools of life.
La Strada succeeds enormously as a road film, even after all these decades, because the problems it poses are timeless. Like many other examples in the genre, most notably Easy Rider, Fellini attempts to pose a sociological document about the people of the country – both in the empty farmlands of rural areas and the relatively recent projects of modernity. However, La Strada is immensely more special because it takes us on a mythological journey as well. Fellini described it as: “A complete catalogue of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity that was undertaken with no precedent whatsoever.”
The film indulges in exaggerated physical comedy, which is reminiscent of Chaplin and his contemporaries from the silent era, but it remains strangely tragic at all moments. La Strada talks to us, it reaches out to us at our lowest and convinces us that even a pebble has a purpose because everything in the whole universe is pointless if it doesn’t. In the context of existential thought and the dizzying consequences of post-war disillusionment, a clown delivering a poetic lecture about absurdism and pebbles is a moment that will never be erased from the history of cinema.
By the end, Fellini has subjected the audience to all the seasons that Italy has to offer. We have seen the flickering visions of summer, which provide bittersweet warmth as well as the spectacle of winter which freezes our soul. La Strada makes us greet the Italian countryside as well as the beautiful ocean, but we cannot focus on any of it. All we can notice is the crushing sadness of Zampanò – a shell of a broken and fading man who comes to the destabilising conclusion that he has spent his life destroying others to sustain his flawed ego. The tourism of La Strada is a moral, philosophical and psychological; the tragic destination is an inevitable one.
Fellini once confessed that La Strada was the favourite film he ever made, mostly because he felt a special connection to Zampanò: “Above all, because I feel that it is my most representative film, the one that is the most autobiographical; for both personal and sentimental reasons, because it is the film that I had the greatest trouble in realising and that gave me the most difficulty when it came time to find a producer.”