Monday, 19 March 2007

La Strada (Italy, 1954, Federico Fellini)

‘La Strada’ was the first Fellini film to achieve international distribution and recognition, and won the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, so it’s a perfect starting point for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the works of the Italian master. It’s a simple and heartbreaking tale. Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) is a naïve and innocent, yet slightly slow witted girl from a poor family, who is ‘sold’ to Zampagno (Anthony Quinn), a strong-man who travels from town to town displaying his strength in exchange for food and a little money. Gelsomina is his assistant, yet he treats her quite cruelly; he whips her with a stick if she gets her lines wrong, and leaves her behind if he’s picked up a woman for the night. He takes advantage of the loyalty and fondness she has shown him, whilst offering nothing in return.

This relationship becomes under threat when Gelsomina meets The Fool (Richard Basehart), a tightrope artist who is kind and considerate, the complete opposite to how Zampagno treats her. Zampagno and Gelsomina join the circus troupe that The Fool belongs to, and the rivalry between the two men intensifies immediately. The Fool taunts Zampagno during his act, and tries to distract him, which incurs the wrath of Zampagno, who tries to attack The Fool after his performance. Although we have already developed notions of Zampagno as a headstrong brute and The Fool as a wise practical joker, I think there’s more to it than that. Zampagno is obviously jealous of the attention Gelsomina gives to The Fool, and I think The Fool knows this, and engineers trouble between the pair to encourage Gelsomina to favour him. After Zampagno’s attempts to attack The Fool with a knife (which gets all three of them thrown out of the circus), The Fool asks Gelsomina to run away with him, but she remains loyal to Zampagno. She waits for his release from prison, and tells Zampagno that before she would rather have died than stayed with him before, but now she would even marry him. Despite his dreadful treatment of her, she has a rather misguided affection for him. Whilst we are never sure at this point how he feels, she has a love for him that cannot easily be shaken.

A chance meeting between Zampagno and The Fool comprises La Strada’s shocking denouément, which ends in tragedy when Zampagno somewhat accidentally kills The Fool. Although Zampagno hides The Fool’s body, silencing Gelsomina is another prospect entirely. Witnessing this tragic act sends her into a state of madness – like a wounded animal she cries and whimpers in mourning. Unsure of whether he can trust her to keep her silence, Zampagno acts as he did previously – he leaves her, although this time it is permanent. Years later Zampagno hears a woman singing a tune that Gelsomina used to play on her trumpet. From her he discovers what became of Gelsomina, and that she is now dead. Grief-stricken and finally able to realise just what she meant to him, Zampagno retreats to a state of self-pity. In a final scene that almost mirrors the start, Zampagno walks down to the sea. He looks to the sky and then cries on the beach, a broken man. This is the first time we have seen him this vulnerable and open, and able to show signs of humanity and compassion. Yet it is too late.

Whilst La Strada might sound unremittingly grim from this description, let’s not forget that it’s as comic as it is sombre, and much of this rests in Giuletta Masina’s wonderful performance. A character of few words, she is almost a throwback to the days of silent film, expressing herself with looks and actions instead of dialogue. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin with her walks and hats, she is the emotional core the film, a self-sacrificing heroine who remains loyal to a careless and cruel man who only realises her loves her when it’s too late. Several themes that recur in Fellini films have their origins in La Strada; the figure suspended between earth and sky (The Fool on his tightrope) and the sea figure most prominently. It’s the first film of his that has been described as a masterpiece and is surely one of the most enduring.

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