La Strada Review

Most of Fellini’s early work up to La Dolce Vita, before he turned the camera inward with 8 ½, deals with disenfranchised characters on the margins of society – like the young men whose wings are clipped by being in a small provincial seaside town in I Vitelloni or the little prostitute living in a shack who dreams of escaping from the misery of her condition in Nights of Cabiria. More often these Fellini characters are involved in the entertainment industry, usually low-brow vaudeville entertainers – clowns, comedians, magicians, photo romance fumetti actors or gossip column journalists. Despite his frequent treatments of this type of character, Fellini has scarcely bettered the tragicomedy aspect of life than in this simple tale of street performers out on the road – La Strada.

When her sister Rosa dies, Gelsomina (Giuiletta Masina) takes her place working as an assistant for Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), the Strong Man in a travelling show. Gelsomina is from a poor family, and the small sum of 10,000 Lire that Zampanò pays her mother will nevertheless feed her starving brothers and sisters, so she agrees to join him on the road. Heading off on the Strong Man’s little motorbike-caravan, Zampanò does his act for sideshows on the street and at wedding parties. Gelsomina is trained to be his sidekick, but is really little more than a trained dog and treated with less respect, beaten when she doesn’t do exactly as Zampanò asks and left sitting out on the street while Zampanò gets drunk and picks up women. They join up with a travelling circus, but Zampanò’s nasty temperament and a run-in with an acrobat who is sympathetic to Gelsomina’s plight, gets them into trouble.

The single greatest thing about La Strada is Giulietta Masina’s performance. It is certainly very stylised and far from naturalistic – in the tradition of Harpo Marx, Chaplin and the early silent comedians – but it’s a wonderful performance and an absolute delight to watch her expressing not only with those amazing eyes, but with every confident swagger, playful bound and sad hunch of her body. Zampanò is almost a caricature as the villain of the story, wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn as an irremediable brute who has no good qualities (or at least misdirects them) and achieves no redemption. With its extreme caricatures of a simple girl who is a little backward and sensitive teaming up with a brute who mistreats her, both of them masking the failings of their characters in the clown make-up they wear - La Strada is certainly a broad treatment of a tragicomic melodrama and the bringing together of these two characters is inevitably going to lead to humour and misery. But La Strada is not all cuteness and sentimentality that its description might suggest, nor is it the freakshow parade that the pitching together of these two characters might appear. It is the appearance of a third person, Richard Basehart’s ‘Il Matto’ (The Fool) that brings out the complexities of their relationship and takes it even further into tragic proportions.

There’s a sense that, if not directly autobiographical – Fellini's romantic claims to have run away as a youth and joined a circus must be taken with the usual pinch of salt – there is, here more than ever for a Fellini film, the sense that the marginal, disenfranchised entertainers and the larger-than-life world of the circus entertainer is a world that Fellini knows well and finds the ideal vehicle for the themes that interest him. The melodramatic situations he depicts here are heightened by the greasepaint and spotlights of the circus tent, pushed to extremes and exaggerated, thereby capturing the richness of life in all its facets – the tragedy and the comedy, the hardships and injustices as well as the simple joys and pleasures and the conflicts and relationships that blend these elements together. All this, I would submit, raises La Strada to the level of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, with characters that are close to mythological archetypes of these uniquely human characteristics and complexities. Adding to the film in no small way is Nino Rota’s wonderful score - soulful, plaintive, joyous and celebratory - it doesn’t express or underline what is on the screen, it adds a further dimension to it, expressing what is inexpressible in any other form.

La Strada is released in the UK by Optimum. The dual-layer disc is encoded for Region 2.

The picture quality is exceptionally good – a thing of beauty. It’s not perfect, but astonishingly good for a film this age, showing excellent levels of detail, deep, rich textured blacks and perfect brightness and contrast balance. One or two scenes show very slight flickering of light and can appear overly bright, but these are isolated scenes and no doubt down to the quality of the original materials. Other than a hint of edge enhancement, this is a fine, almost perfect transfer.

The audio track is reasonably clear and strong, with no distortion or noise. It works well as the limitations of the original recording and dubbing (Quinn and Basehart are American and have their lines dubbed into Italian) allow it to be.

Optional English subtitles are provided, in white font and they are clear and readable, translating the film well.

Commentary by Chris Wiegend in Selected Scenes (18:04)
The selected commentary looks at only four scenes from the film – the opening and closing scenes, and two of the performance sequences – adding up to only about 18 minutes. There is good background information here and a full commentary along these lines would have been very interesting, but I think you’re better left with the few prompts that are given and make your own mind up on the rest. You don’t need a film like this explained to you.

Giulietta Masina – The Power of a Smile (52:55)
A fabulous little Italian documentary takes the spotlight away from Fellini for a change and looks at his wife’s background, career and her relationship with the director.

Of Fellini’s pre-La Dolce Vita work, I personally prefer Nights of Cabiria (and also prefer Giulietta Masina’s tougher little character who bounces back from the blows that life deals her in a way that Gelsomina tragically cannot) with its episodic structure that touches on so many other aspects of its characters and Italian society, but La Strada - the first film to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, one of four for Fellini - also has so much that is essential in the director’s cinematic expression of life, distilled almost to its purest and simplest form. This classic picture has been given an astonishingly good transfer to DVD with a few nice additional features.

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