One of the first things that needs to be said about Federico Fellini’s La Strada is how perfectly executed the casting process was. There are only three main characters, but each actor seems so suited to their particular role it’s quite easy to temporarily forget all the other work they made, which is not to be sniffed at. Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina is the expressive, wide-eyed Gelsomina, a naive and carefree young woman (perhaps with learning difficulties) who is suddenly sold to cruel, violent and unscrupulous travelling circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn); they’re both so good it’s difficult to imagine the original choices, Silvana Mangano and Burt Lancaster, playing this odd couple. Joining them is Richard Basehart as Il Matto… The Fool, the film’s third tragic figure.
Italian cinema at the time was still enjoying its new-found post-Mussolini freedom, and the neo-realism movement was by 1954 in full swing, though there hadn’t been anything quite like La Strada before, which is so shot through with fatalism and sadness it’s hard not to be moved by it long before the truly miserable events of the story occur. The action stays out of cities, by and large, and often seems to be on the outskirts of towns, such is the circus performer’s itinerant lifestyle. The other locations – shot by the great Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini – such as those in the mountains and next to the sea, are oddly barren and uneappealing, as if to emphasise the harshness of nature, of life. Wedded to this is a sad diegetic and non-diegetic score by Nino Rota and those terrific performances. Quinn’s face looks like it has been carved from rock, and he makes Zampanò extremely detestable, but even after all his cruelty you cannot help but feel a sliver of sympathy for him during the final moments; his only act is to break chains that he tightly binds around his chest, the irony being he can’t break free from himself. (And the chain he uses is also a metaphor for Fellini’s intention with the film: the director unconventially uses the unreal, quasi-mystical background of circuses and travelling performers to break free of constraints that had been forming within Italian cinema, and to show other filmmaker peers that the style could move beyond just straight social drama.)
Masina’s memorable Gelsomina gives the film much of its heart. It’s hard not to think of several silent comedians as she lurches from frown to smile at the drop of a hat, the most famous of which would be Charlie Chaplin. Hers is one of the great performances of the era: she sells the character within her first scene, and you are always looking for her within the frame, watching how she reacts to everything that happens, feeling every physical and mental blow she receives. Masina’s acting makes this one of the great weepies. (*****)