"I don't know what this pebble's purpose is, but it must have one, because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless."—The Fool (from La Strada)
One of the most important films to emerge out of the postwar Italian cinema, Federico Fellini's La Strada remains both a devastatingly simple human tragedy as well as a complex examination of the breakdown of the human spirit by way of animalistic cruelty. Featuring masterful performances from stars Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, it continues to endure as one of Fellini's most accessible and poetic films, one that no true cinephile can afford to miss.
Facts of the Case
La Strada tells the story of Gelsomina (Masina), a simple Italian girl who is sold by her poor family into the charge of Zampanò (Quinn), a brutal traveling strongman. As the two travel the outskirts of Rome, Gelsomina begins to feel a compassion for the chauvinistic and bestial Zampanò, who treats her like little more than an animal. Soon, this compassion blossoms into love, both maternal and romantic, as the girl eventually comes to realize that traveling with this creature is her purpose in life. But when Zampanò's brutal nature leads to tragedy, the lives of the characters are sent spiraling downward into an inescapable fate.
Released in 1954, La Strada would serve as a transitional film, both for the trajectory of Fellini's career and for Italian cinema itself. The film came on the heels of the neorealist movement in which Fellini played an instrumental part, and features many of the earmarks of neorealist filmmaking. It was shot on location, and features a number of actual sites situated throughout postwar Italy. It featured the use of non-actors in supporting roles. And it placed its economically downtrodden characters in a deceptively simplistic plot that could be seen as a springboard for a commentary on the human condition.
And yet, the film is routinely seen as a major break from neorealism, a designation that drew heated attacks from Marxist critics of the time. For while La Strada is bathed superficially in neorealist trappings, Fellini chooses to place the film's focus on the emotional and spiritual condition of his characters, rather than the weight of their economic situation, a decision that was seen as a betrayal of the neorealist spirit. The entire existence of neorealism, leftist critics argued, hinged singularly on the impact of the poor economy on the personal struggle of the characters, and any departure from that economic focus was seen as an alienation of the movement. While the characters in La Strada are obviously quite poor, this fact is kept to the background in favor of the poetic fable of a woman's love for a man who refuses to love her back, and who doesn't realize his mistake until it is too late.
The woman is played by Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife and frequent collaborator), in a performance sure to inspire compassion in even the most hardened cynics. Masina, with her short stature, matted hair, and big insect-like eyes, always had the uncanny ability to combine slapstick comedy with a childlike innocence, so that you were laughing at her misfortunes while at the same time feeling compassion for her emotional situation. Here she creates a portrait of a woman (a girl, actually) forced into serving a brutal, unfeeling wretch of a man, but who has such a kind heart and unflinching optimism that she actually comes to care for him both as a husband and, in a way, as a son. When she is told by the character of the Fool (Richard Basehart) that serving Zampanò may be her only purpose in life, instead of despairing at such a proposition, she is not only accepts it, but actually rejoices at the idea. Handled improperly, this might have forced an audience into wanting to smack some sense into her, but Masina is so sincere in her conviction that we are actually happy for her when she comes to this realization.
Anthony Quinn, as Zampanò, faces a similarly difficult proposition in creating a character that the audience has to hate for the first two thirds of the film, but with whom we are eventually supposed to sympathize, and he pulls it off brilliantly. The secret to the performance is the ruthlessness with which Quinn portrays him early in the film, and in his refusal to let any cracks in the exterior show. Even when Gelsomina cries out to him for compassion and makes her love for him apparent, Zampanò is too world-weary to reciprocate her feelings, and is incapable of returning to her the love she so strongly feels for him. It is only in the film's final act, when the events take a tragic turn, that Zampanò finally begins to let his conscience appear, so that when he cries out at the film's conclusion, we are finally able to see him as human.
For Fellini, La Strada would signal a major turning point in his career, in which he began to abandon the concepts of neorealism in favor of a more lyrical poeticism, and he would eventually leave the neorealist trappings behind completely when he created the surrealist fantasy of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. The film won Fellini the first Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and today, many critics have come to see it as perhaps his best and truest work. Though not a complete departure from the surface structure of the neorealist cinema, it nevertheless marries the feeling of disillusionment from that earlier movement with the emotional and psychological depth that would come to personify his later work. It is, in a way, the best of both worlds.
The Criterion Collection presents La Strada in a restored black and white transfer that does full justice to Otello Martelli's bleak, striking imagery. The source print exhibits only the slightest amount of wear and tear, and though the occasional speck of dirt does appear on the print, they're so few and far between that they seem hardly worth mentioning. Two audio options are available, both English and Italian mono. Italian is the preferred choice here, although we learn from the disc's commentary track that the film itself was recorded with no sound, and that sound was later dubbed in (Quinn and Basehart, being American actors, did not speak Italian in filming). So while the Italian track is the better of the two, neither of the tracks is actually "correct."
Criterion has seen fit to give the film the two-disc treatment, although the number of extras just barely warrants this. Disc One includes the aforementioned screen-specific audio commentary with Italian film scholar Peter Bondanella, who has written the books Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present and The Cinema of Federico Fellini. As per the Criterion norm, the track is more scholarly in tone and is read from an essay, but Bondanella nevertheless does a magnificent job of placing the film in a historical context while at the same time pointing out things onscreen that the typical viewer might miss.
Also included on the first disc is a video introduction by Martin Scorsese that runs just over 10 minutes. As usual, it's a joy to listen to Scorsese discuss his love for the films that have influenced him, and here he relates the film's direct influence on his own work (including the Zampanò character as an obvious prototype for Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull). Once caveat, though: the "introduction" tag is a bit misleading. Scorsese goes into enormous detail about the film's plot and divulges some key revelations that occur late in the story. Anyone who's never seen La Strada is advised to wait until after viewing the film to watch Scorsese's discussion. Disc One also contains the film's theatrical trailer.
Disc Two contains only one extra, Federico Fellini's Autobiography, a documentary originally produced for Italian television. Culled from a variety of interviews with the director himself, the doc yields some fascinating insights into the Fellini's genius, while at the same time reveling in his sheer pomposity. It's clear from this documentary that Fellini always considered himself a Great Artist rather than a simple storyteller, and it's this self-importance that makes the doc such captivating viewing. However, at only 55 minutes, it's the only special feature included on the second disc, and with the steep price Criterion puts on their two-disc releases, one has to wonder if its inclusion is really worth the extra money.
Criterion proves once again that they're the best in the business when it comes to classic foreign cinema on DVD. La Strada remains one of the most important films of the postwar Italian film industry, and this new DVD provides it with the respect it deserves. Though the list price of $39.95 is a bit high for the quantity of features included, the quality of what is here more than makes up for it.
Not guilty on all counts. The court commends Criterion once again on their excellent treatment of an essential cinema classic, and looks forward to the (hopeful) release of Fellini's La Dolce Vita in 2004.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Introduction by Martin Scorsese
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