La Strada, a Journey, Honor-Worthy of Our Attention or: The Road Less Traveled.

La Strada, 1954, is a nearly perfect film, I am not speaking of technical perfection but of artistic excellence, beautifully structured, handsomely photographed, a genius script and deftly edited to offer us a bitter-sweet and tragic dream of a movie. It has its footing in the Italian Neorealismo movement but transcended to something new, realism communicated through illusion and fantasy, painted on a surreal canvas of celluloid.

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Everything has to have a beginning and so looking with hindsight we see that Strada is the foundation of the Federico Fellini style, his beginning of telling his stories, his way, at his tempo. In Fellini’s hyper-realistic creation we except to see the fantastic, the uncommon, yet, in this improbable, exceptional Fellini-universe we grow familiar with seascapes, circuses, prostitutes, the simple-minded, things odd and mundane, all of which are important threads used in the film tapestry we now know as Felliniesque.

Not the first road-picture but maybe the best, La Strada was certainly a labor of love for director Federico Fellini, beginning filming on a small budget in October of 1953, Fellini’s leading lady and wife, Giulietta Masina, dislocated her ankle and because of set-lighting had to wear bandages over her eyes to help her discomfort from light-sensitivity. Strada’s leading man, Anthony Quinn had scheduling conflicts which left him exhausted, working mornings for Fellini and shooting with director Pietro Francisci in the afternoons and evenings on Attila, 1954. Cold temperatures brought challenges for crew and performers alike and then when snow was needed in late March of 1954 production manager Luigi Giacosi improvised[1] with bed-linens and bags of plaster standing in for snow.

This early Fellini masterpiece was shot as a silent, with sound effects, voices and music added after filming had completed; speaking of music, Nino Rota as always, delivers a score that depicts emotionally and musically this other-world by Fellini and here gave us a haunting love-theme for the heart to replay as needed. Anthony Quinn (nor Basehart) spoke Italian, so Fellini hired Arnoldo Foà to provide the voice-over for Quinn.[2] Quinn was spot-on with his physical-interpretation of “Zampanò”, aided by his gesticulating he brought the needed power and strength to the role of the strongman.

Richard Basehart was selected because he looked the part of a clown, or as Fellini referred to him “Charlot” (Charlie Chaplin’s French nickname)[3]. Our famed director may have seen Basehart as a Chaplin but it was Masina that proved to be Chaplinesque in her movements, facial expressions and demeanor, taking La Strada not so much into the future of cinema but into the past where the pathos and humor of Chaplin seen in The Gold Rush, 1925, The Circus, 1928, City Lights, 1931 and Modern Times, 1936, was fully revived in 1954 Italy by Masina and the delicate handling by husband Fellini. Gelsomina’s sorrow is our sorrow, her hurt our hurt, vicariously we experience what it is to be a waif; much like the character of the Tramp created by Chaplin, Masina’s waif is not only alone but each attempt at friendship or love leaves her wanting, unfulfilled, more than a waif, waif wasted[4]. And that leaves us wanting more for this innocent (that is how we perceive her), this open and loving individual; our hope by film’s end is that we can be as open, able and willing to love as she, without all the pain and horror that life so often seems to bring.

I am not sure that there ever has been or ever will be an actress that could play the role “Gelsomina” as did Giulietta Masina; it was her uniqueness of voice, her dexterity of face and body, cleverness of eyes that set her apart for this persona; or as “The Fool” said to “Gelsomina” “what a funny face! Are you really a woman? You look like an Artichoke.” No truer words could have been spoken about Masina regarding this character, for she mooned, mugged, smiled, frowned and rolled her eyes into the hearts of countless movie-watchers since the premier of this classic film at the Venice Film Festival on September 6th, 1954; she is our guide and mentor of purpose for this ambling trip taken in La Strada. If I were silly enough (and I am) to compile a list of top five performances by category in film history, then Giulietta Masina would receive my vote for one of the best and most memorable performances recorded on film.

Over and over again this movie surprises, extracts emotions, pity and tears, leaving the viewer spent by the time of la fine. So make time for your own personal journey down The Road, with the ubiquitous side-trips for pasta, marriage-celebrations, carnivals, lust, hate and a horse of course.

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On the set of La Strada:

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By C. S. Williams


[1] Federico Fellini: His Life and Work by Tullio Kezich, Faber & Faber, 2006,  page 150

[2] Federico Fellini: His Life and Work by Tullio Kezich, Faber & Faber, 2006,  page 150

[3] Federico Fellini: His Life and Work by Tullio Kezich, Faber & Faber, 2006,  page 148

[4] Federico Fellini as Auteur: Seven Aspects of His Films by John Caldwell Stubbs, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006, page 146

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