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LA STRADA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart
Director:  Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  November 18, 2003

“Everything in this world is good for something. Take this pebble, for example.”

“What's it good for?”

“ I don't know ... but it certainly has its use. If it were useless, then everything would be useless…even the stars.”

Film ***1/2

It’s been said that La Strada was the first film to earn the adjective “Felliniesque”.  Many critics and film historians say that if you only see one film crafted by Federico Fellini, this is the one.  I can understand why, though I’d feel dismay at the thought of a moviegoer only seeing this picture and never taking a look at Nights of Cabiria or 8 ½.

Fellini, in 1954, was still an artist of the Italian neo-realist period, yet La Strada is a good illustration of the changing fashion of filmmaking at the time.  It’s still neo-realist in terms of focusing on the lower, forgotten elements of humanity, while concentrating more on the story than the style.  That’s on one level.  On another, if you look beyond the characters and see archetypes instead, you could argue that Fellini’s film is more spiritual than worldly, and more allegory than melodrama.  As Rita Kempley of The Washington Post observed, “The neo-realists saw the wasted land, the ragged people, but Fellini looked up and saw that there were stars.”

The film follows the structure of a road picture (La Strada means “the road”), beginning when a sideshow strongman named Zampano (Quinn) actually purchases a young woman from her impoverished mother to be his new assistant.  That woman, Gelsomina (Masina), is everything Zampano is not.  While he is a walking testament to the id—brutish, gruff and selfish—she is childlike, emotional and easily awed. 

Zampano’s treatment of her ranges from indifferent to boorish…he’s not above shoving her around or lashing her with a switch when she irks him.  He forces himself on her.  They travel around Italy in a ramshackle trailer pulled by a motorcycle, stopping only for Zampano to perform his one trick (breaking chains with his chest) while Gelsomina has to dress like a clown and pass the hat.  He’s not above abandoning her for the night when he takes up with another woman.

Eventually their travels lead them to a real circus, and there Gelsomina first lays eyes on The Fool (Basehart), who eats spaghetti while balancing on a high wire.  She and Zampano are asked to join, but The Fool can’t resist saying whatever pops into his head.  He kids and belittles the strongman, even interrupting his act.  Zampano is not amused.  They fight, Zampano ends up in jail, and both he and The Fool are kicked out of the show.

It’s at that point that Gelsomina could finally make her run for it.  She seems to share a kind kinship with The Fool, who seems to want her to go with him, but errantly makes a statement that suggests to her she should remain with Zampano.  They don’t call him The Fool for nothing.

But stay she does, remaining as dutiful as possible, even awkwardly suggesting marriage to a dismissive Zampano.  This culminates in a later chance encounter with The Fool, which ends in tragedy.  Gelsomina, with spirit broken, heads towards her own bad end, while Zampano realizes far too late what a wonderful thing he had with her.

That’s one way to look at the story.  Another is as a metaphor for the struggle between mind, body and spirit as represented respectively by The Fool, Zampano and Gelsomina.  Zampano is always seen close to the ground, sometimes on all fours like an animal, always crouched when he does his chain trick.  The Fool is flighty; first seen hovering between earth and sky (an image Fellini would invoke repeatedly in his future work).  Poor Gelsomina, with her simple mind and childlike affinity, is almost the embodiment of a saint, the way she cares for even insects and tomato plants.  Her ultimate choice may not be between two men, but between the spirit and the flesh, between fancy and duty.

Of course, if you don’t read that much into it, there’s still plenty of life in this work.  It’s beautifully tragic in a kind of melodramatic way, lacking the subtle and more contemplative approach of Fellini’s later Nights of Cabiria.  Both films star his wonderful wife Giulietta Masina in acclaimed roles, though Nights I believe is a better showcase for her abilities.  Most of her work in La Strada is reduced to silent filmed style miming and expressions.  She comes across somewhere between Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx, but still manages to win our hearts despite her mugging.

Anthony Quinn really shines as the ogre Zampano.  He had just come from playing Stanley in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and it was a good leap.  His tall, broad shouldered frame makes him an imposing figure, but his talent makes Zampano a reduction to the basest of human emotions while leaving him just enough room for a redemption of sorts at the end, even if it comes a little late.

This film won Fellini his first Foreign Film Oscar and was received well in the United States.  In his native Italy, his attempts to push beyond the boundaries of neo-realism were seen as daring by some, condemned as treacherous by others who saw filmmaking only for its political rather than artistic potential.  Fellini simply argued that neo-realism should encompass all levels of reality, even spiritual and metaphysical ones, because they too are a part of the human experience.

La Strada remains possibly the master’s most popular film.  I can’t go so far as to say it’s one of his VERY best, but darn near.  It’s definitely a treasure of international cinema, and if you really were going to see only one Fellini film in your life, this is certainly a good one to pick.  You could do a lot worse.

Video ****

Criterion scores again…this is an astounding presentation of a half century old film!  The black and white photography renders beautifully on DVD, with full integrity of images, a clean clear print that was obviously meticulously restored, bright whites, deep blacks, and as far as I could see, no undue grain or compression to mar the picture.  The lack of scratches, dirt and debris is the most remarkable aspect to me; you’ll seldom see a film this old look this good.  Fellini fans should be ecstatic.

Audio **1/2 (Italian), ** (English)

This film actually presents a poser as far as which language to select.  Fellini never recorded live sound; all dialogue was post dubbed.  This is an Italian production, but two of the three lead actors are actually American and spoke English on the set…Anthony Quinn has, of course, a particularly distinctive voice.  If you watch the Italian, you’ll hear Italian actors dubbing Quinn and Basehart.  If you watch the English, you’ll hear English speaking actors dubbing Masina and everyone else.

That being said, after watching both, I prefer the Italian.  It actually sounds a little clearer and stronger than the English track (though both are mono), with a little more dynamic range.  Plus, Italian just seems right for a Fellini film.  The dubbing of Basehart is a little questionable, but whoever spoke for Quinn did a highly respectable job.  Plus, Ms. Masina’s dubbing sounds a tad silly in English.  I noticed a couple of dropouts in the English audio early on, starting at about the 3 1/2 minute mark...I don't know if that was just my copy, or a source problem.

Features ****

Criterion continues to serve cinema students well with a double disc presentation of La Strada that’s packed with delectable goodies.  Disc One features a terrific introduction by Martin Scorsese (I actually would recommend saving it until you’ve seen the film; there are spoilers) and a very solid commentary track by Peter Bondanella, an expert on Fellini and Italian cinema.  His thoughts are insightful, and even offers an interpretation or two.  You may not agree, but as he says, that’s the beauty of Fellini; he gives you room to bring your own ideas to the table.  The American trailer is also included.

Disc Two contains the hour-or-so documentary feature Federico Fellini’s Autobiography.  This is a tremendous film that spans about 15 years in the life of the director, starting on the set of La Dolce Vita and ending just after Amacord.  It’s an insightfully candid look at the great director, who speaks with great affluence about his life and work…an absolute treat.

Summary:

The release of La Strada on DVD should be considered a red-letter event in the history of the medium.  Criterion remains the first, best and only name to know when it comes to the truest film classics being preserved on disc looking better than ever before and generosity with extras for fans and students.  Bravo!