“La Strada”, the 1954 film that established Federico Fellini’s international reputation and won the first competitive Oscar for best foreign film, is exemplary pop modernity – an existential parable with affinities to “Waiting for Godot” with an appealingly sad clown who is pursued by An abandoned musical phrase that plays in the timeless landscape of windswept beaches, ragged carnivals and deserted squares that Fellini has made his own.
It is also a crowd puller, appropriately selected as one of the newly selected films that will reopen the Film Forum on Friday.
Fellini wants to break your heart right from the start, because the wide-open Waif Gelsomina (the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina) is sold by her impoverished mother to the traveling carnival star Zampano (Anthony Quinn) as his henchman, servant and concubine.
Gelsomina’s childlike innocence is reinforced by the brutal behavior of her master. While he is mostly occupied with repeating a single, unimaginative stunt – ironically, he bursts a chain that encircles his chest – the simple-minded Gelsomina delights in imagination and spontaneous performance. In one scene, she entertains the guests and children at an outdoor wedding with an impromptu dance; in another, she casts a spell on the sisters in a convent that protects her (and Zampano is considering robbing).
Masina’s entrance is almost silent; unmistakably Chaplinesque with her derby, oversized coat and makeshift stick, she also reminds of Stan Laurel, Harpo Marx and, as a small wooden head, Pinocchio. Fellini is said to have received numerous offers to manufacture additional vehicles for the character, including one from Walt Disney. ET can be viewed among their offspring.
The New York Times described “La Strada” (The Street) as “a tribute to the neo-realistic Italian film school,” although despite all its bleak locations it is far more allegorical than naturalistic. Indeed, Fellini’s metaphorical intentions are made clear by the introduction of the wandering tightrope walker named Fool (Richard Basehart), who appears with a pair of cardboard angel wings.
Despite his annoyingly synchronized giggles, the fool fascinates Gelsomina. With all three characters busy by a worn out circus, the fool mocks Zampano and encourages Gelsomina to join his act. She cannot do that, tied to Zampano by a mystical force that can only be described as “love”. Instead, the fool leaves her with the poignant Nino Rota melody that becomes her subject.
Like this refrain, “La Strada” belongs to Masina. Even before the film ends, it becomes clear that Quinn (who took on Marlon Brando’s role in the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a forerunner of Roughneck masculinity) has achieved a career. In fact, the last five minutes, a coda that plays five years after the two partial routes, are his.
“La Strada” is often sentimental and not always convincing, but the ending grabs a wallop. As a young child, I was told the story of my mother, who had just seen the film and may have been devastated. Although I didn’t quite get it, the last scene – Zampano wading into the sea – has stayed with me all my life.
April 2-8 at the Film Forum, Manhattan. 212-727-8110; filmforum.org. Also streaming on the Criterion Channel, Kanopy and other platforms.