Revisiting the Magic of Fellini’s ‘La Strada’

Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in Fellini's 'La Strada.' (Screenshot/YouTube)
Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina in Fellini's 'La Strada.' (Screenshot/YouTube)

La Strada (The Road), was one of the first Frederico Fellini films I ever saw. It’s harsh, beautiful, truthful, and a little magical.

It is the classic film that made me begin my journey into the world of Italian neo-realist films. And for director Fellini and Giulietta Masina (his wife and also the lead), it is the film that launched them into international stardom.

La Strada was released in 1954, winning critical acclaim with more than 50 awards worldwide, and an Oscar for best foreign film.

Child-like Gelsomina played by Giulietta Masina. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Child-like Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The story starts with Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), sold by her mother to travelling sideshow strongman Zampinò (played by Anthony Quinn) — whose circus act is to break a chain wrapped around his chest. She begins her new life on the road as a servant to the strongman, and even though he mistreats her, she adores him.

He teaches Gelsmonina to play a trumpet and tattered snare drum as he cracks his whip. They meet symbolic characters, and having many abstract encounters, the film seems a bit like a folk tale.

Zampinò meets an old rival in high-wire artist the Fool (played Richard Basehart), and his fury is provoked to breaking point.

A charasmatic brute, Zampinó played by Anthony Quinn. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A charasmatic brute, Zampinò, played by Anthony Quinn. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Nino Rota’s haunting musical theme of La Strada that plays throughout the film is significant in many ways. Gelsomina would love to sing it, which Zampinò hated. Later in the film, when she meets the Fool, he plays the tune on the violin for her, so they connect. However, the Fool casts her aside and reveals her purpose in life is to save Zampinò from his own brutality.

It is a tender and beautifully executed scene as the Fool says to Gelsomina: “Everything and everyone has a purpose — even a pebble, even you.”

Trumpeter Mauro Maur played the song, La Strada, at Giuletta Masina’s funeral ceremony to fulfill her special request before dying in 1994 at the age of 73.

Richard Basehart as the Fool with Gelsomina in La Strada. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Richard Basehart as the Fool with Gelsomina in ‘La Strada.’ (Screenshot/YouTube)

It’s a tough world post World War II, with many problems faced by the working class in Italy, but what I find so lasting about the picture is the laughter and compassion in such a hostile world.

Fellini manages to bring a touch of magic to the real, and I love that.

Gelsomina, the delicate clown with a heart of gold made this film for me. Her character is full of expression and child-like qualities, with an acting style very similar to a female version of Charlie Chaplin. Giulietta Masina was married to Fellini for 50 years. They collaborated together on films, such as Nights of Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, and The White Sheik. I think she brought out the best of his films.

Zampanó teaches Gelsomina trumpet. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Zampanò teaches Gelsomina to play the trumpet. (Screenshot/YouTube)

I think Fellini’s purpose in the film is to make us feel compassion toward every being. And it’s not easy, especially with Zampinò. It is much easier with Gelsomina’s saintly and sweet character, but to feel this toward Zampinò with his selfish behavior is hard. Yet the audience is given a moment, as the film ends, for our hearts to go out to him.

Without the last shot, this would not have happened. It is a kind of magic in itself that the director achieves this effect, but — then again — it is Fellini.

Watch the trailer in English:

Although you can watch the dubbed version, it is recommended to see the film in Italian with subtitles.

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