It’s above all Giulietta Masina’s performance that makes Federico Fellini’s 1954 work La Strada one of the greatest films ever made. The temperament of her character, Gelsomina, is beguilingly child-like. She’s constantly moving between extremes of sadness and happiness. Though she talks often, you notice also the many scenes where she seems to be in her own little silent movie, which is appropriate enough since there’s something very Chaplinesque about her. While other characters in the movie converse or go about their noisy business, she looks on with a beatific smile, like a proud mother to the whole world. At least that’s what she’d like to be. The tragedy of her situation is that the world doesn’t want her mothering. In fact it treats her more like an infant whom you can safely ignore.
And let’s not forget Anthony Quinn, because this is also his best film, and he also gives a magnificently honest, raw performance. He’s the strongman performer, with limited talents and a boorish nature, who hires Gelsomina and spends the film treating her badly. There’s a snowbound 15 or 20 minutes of the film near the end where he seems as pathetically sad and lonesome as his clapped-out old motorcycle mobile-home looks when set against the landscape. Richard Basehart, also good, has the third major role in the film, but he’s only there in a way to act as a catalyst to developments in the love-hate relationship between the other two.
If you’ve never seen La Strada before, you may find the music eerily reminiscent of something you know well. It’s very similar to the score of The Godfather, not in its actual tunes but in its instrumentation and feel. When Gelsomina plays a lovely mournful tune on a trumpet at a convent the echoes are particularly strong. But this is no co-incidence: the scores of both films were done by Nino Rota. The cinematography is by Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini. It’s just wonderful in every way. You can see 88 screenshots from the film here. I especially like the shots filmed in the half-light of dawn or dusk.
La Strada is a road movie (the title means ‘The Road’) and the characters are constantly moving on, so the pacing of the film works well. We never stay long in one place and we never get bored. I also love the setting. It’s mostly rural, with a few scenes in Rome and the ‘flat scrubby countryside with occasional tower blocks’ look of Italy at that time seemed very different from that of any other country. There was something elemental and mythical to it. (Or maybe it was just the way the DPs shot it. I’m thinking of Fellini films but also some of Antonioni’s works from the 50’s and Pasolini’s Accattone. Even when I don’t like them much as movies, I appreciate their landscapes).
Masina (Fellini’s wife) was also the heart and soul of another one of his best films, Nights of Cabiria (1957), which had a slow beginning but a very powerful second half. It’s a shame that after that she didn’t appear in more of his films, only Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Ginger and Fred (1986), neither of them anywhere near his best work. In the 50’s at least she seemed to be the soulful counterpoint that he needed. La Strada is certainly his greatest film (it’s his most heartfelt and human) and both it and Nights are superior to La Dolce Vita and 8½. Those movies initially impress because they have some spectacular individual scenes, but after you watch them a second or third time you realise the characters and stories are pretty thin.