Though I consider myself a bit of a movie nut, there is a wealth of cinemagraphic goodness that I haven’t experienced. One of the genres I really don’t even know where to start with is Italian neorealism. I was lucky in that one of my film professors in years past was also an Italian scholar, so we did get to experience the ‘greatest hits’ collection of neorealism. Besides being just a generally fabulous individual (she was six feet tall, stick thin, and intelligent beyond human comprehension), my professor worked to give of a taste of each director in the movement. I’ve seen the philosophical ‘trilogy’ by Roberto Rossellini – Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City); Paisà; and Germania, anno zero (Germany, year zero). I’ve seen works by Visconti, De Sica, and De Santis, but the director who I am most woefully unexperienced in is Federico Fellini (I don’t count Paisà, for which he was a writer for, as one of his films).
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of seeing La Strada – which is largely hailed as Fellini’s greatest film – in 35 mm. Apart from an unintended intermission halfway through the film (the film itself had snapped in two), finally experiencing Fellini’s world was nothing short of a delight.
For all those film buffs out there, let me state that I do realize that La Strada isn’t technically a neorealist film. Actually, upon its release, it caused a firestorm of criticism because it violated the neorealist ‘code’ – Fellini featured absurd hyper-characters, pulling his narrative out of the typical dire straits of the postwar working class that was a staple of neorealism. Instead of rooting his characters in the context of a certain time or place, Fellini’s story thrives on the utter rootlessness of his characters.
The title of the film translates into English as “The Road” – an apt title on many different levels. The film doesn’t only depict the tough life on ‘the road’ for this band of vagabonds – members of travelling circuses whose livelihoods are dependent upon how many different towns they can visit – but also the ‘road’ that the characters travel in a more metaphysical sense.
La Strada starts with the sale of the young, naïve Gelsomina (portrayed by Giulietta Masina, wife and muse to the director) to the slovenly brute Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a “travelling strongman” in need of a new female assistant after the death of his last girl – who, ironically, was also Gelsomina’s sister.
Masina plays Gelsomina to utter Chaplinesque tramp perfection. It is hinted that she is supposed to be mentally challenged, but Gelsomina comes off as more of an extremely unaware young woman who possesses the tendencies of a five-year-old. Zampano is a slobberish brute, a man who could make Stanley Kowalski seem fit to dine with the Queen. He operates on an entirely animalistic basis, acting only upon his desires (for food, drink, sex, or violence). Through it all, Gelsomina stays devoted to her master and a strange quasi-romance occurs. The story is further complicated by the introduction of Il Matto (The Fool, played by Richard Basehart), a man despised by Zampano for his superior performance skills and his teasing behavior.
La Strada as a film serves as not just a journey of narrative, but also of Fellini's direction away from the defined form of neorealism into what renowned critic Andre Bazin referred to as “neorealism of the person” (instead of say neorealism of a situation or event).
As I mentioned above, Fellini’s greater message is served by the lack of ties to any community that his characters have. The story exists outside of time and space, which Millicent Marcus talks about at length in her piece, “Fellini’s La Strada”: "this is not a standard neorealist journey, [...] proved by the total absence of concrete spacial and temporal markers to root the story in history" (Marcus, 148). Fellini's characters don't need time and space because their very nature/ existence/ livelihood stems from their lack of ties anywhere. In this "rootlessness" that Marcus describes, the film becomes a study of the human condition rather than a portrait of lives affected by their surroundings; the film is a perfect example of this new neorealism that Bazin announces.
The success of La Strada is in this very fact - though the situations of circus performers may seem unrealistic and unrelatable, the problems of these people are all too familiar (as Fellini asserts, "There are more Zampanos in the world than bicycle thieves," which refers to the popular neorealist film The Bicycle Thief).
The plight of the human condition is transcendent, whereas historical reality, which is so stressed in typical neorealist vehicles, is not. By refocusing neorealism to be "neorealism of the person," the opportunity for the audience to connect is widened. Unlike Rossellini's 'trilogy' - where the audience would have to had experienced the atrocities of war to truly relate - the struggles that Gelsomina, Zampano, and Il Matto go through are significant and resonate within each of us to a certain extent. Regardless of what is happening in time and space, it's what they are feeling that makes La Strada such a powerful film for the viewer.
Title: from "The Long and Winding Road" (The Beatles)