Day 290: La strada 1954

Day 290
Sunday 15 April 2018
La strada   1954

A Federico Fellini Film

Academy Awards
Best Foreign Language Film (and nominated for Best Story, Original Screenplay)
Nomination for Best Film (from any source) and Best Actress (foreign).
La strada ranks 202nd and 26th in the respective Critics’ and Directors’ Polls from 2012. It’s a significant achievement endorsment by directors and a significant snub by the critics. 8 critics and 15 directors voted this in their Top Ten Films Ever. The most recognisable names on the directors poll were Gillies Mackinnon (Hideous Kinky [1998], The Last of the Blonde Bombshells [2000]), Jiri Menzel (The Beggars Opera [1991]), Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [2005]) and Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train [1985]). On the critics list, I didn’t recognise any names.
Out of 350 directors, 28 split their votes between La strada and La dolce vita and 67 split their votes between the aforementioned films and 8½.
Andrei Konchalovsky voted for 8½ and La strada and Jiri Menzel [director of Closely Observed Trains (1966), itself a very highly regarded film] voted for three Fellini films in his Top Ten: 8½, Nights of Caribria and Amarcord).
Interestingly, Mike Newell and Jiri Menzel have something in common. Both voted for La strada in their top ten and Jiri Menzel’s film OSTRE SLEDOVANÉ VLAKY (1966) was in Mike Newell’s top ten list, along with La strada.

La strada, literally ‘The Road’, is  an excellent film. Its about an itinerant strongman (Anthony Quinn) who makes a living performing street theatre. He pays a family 10,000 lire to buy the services of one of her daughters, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), as his assistant. She has to beat a drum and shout out to the bystanders, a loud introduction for Zampanò’s act, where the strongman will tie a linked-chain around his chest, take a deep breath, expand his chest and burst the steel chain. He’s a brute and when she can’t do it the way he wants, he beats her. She’s good-natured, maybe a little slow, but his treatment of her is unnecessarily cruel at times. Bit by bit, she becomes attached to him. Zampanò never changes.

During the middle of the film they spend time apart until fate brings them together again. They also come across another street performer, only known as The Fool (Richard Basehart), for whom Zampanò has an insane hatred – the only emotion he can show – and the three are forced to work together in a circus for a time. The hatred is so great that their vicious pranks on each other get them both fired. By chance they come across each other on the road sometime later and another physical fight occurs. This time one of the strongman’s punches is so hard it knocks The Fool senseless. He stumbles and falls to the ground and dies on the spot. Zampanò hides the body under a bridge and drives the man’s car over a cliff.

Zampanò and Gelsomina keep travelling together. When she becomes ill, and unable to go on any further, Zampanò leaves Gelsomina to die by the side of the road and goes on alone. The film ends when Zampanò hears a woman singing a melody that Gelsomina used to play on the trumpet. Only at this point does the impact of Gelsomina’s life on Zampanò break through the barriers he has erected to keep the world out. The melody causes him to break down and cry uncontrollably.

The strongman lies on a beach, writhing in the sand, sobbing. He was a strong man other than in physical strength. He was an iron man inside his heart and inside his mind. He had built a concrete wall around himself that was stronger than any iron or metal chain that his chest could snap. It wasn’t a wall that he could personally break down. Sometimes people’s experience of life is such that they can only survive by building walls to protect themselves and keep other people at an emotional distance. The sad, albeit melodramatic, end of the film shows the kind of grief that causes that level of mental anguish. A tiny thing, a melody, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s only in retrospect that the viewer and Zampanò understand what Gelsomina truly meant to him which he never expressed to her.