Federico Fellini’s La Strada is in the tradition of other films like Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and even Nightmare Alley (1947). He even goes so far as to feature two regular Hollywood performers in Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. This film is prominent for helping the Italian master achieve mainstream success, and it functions as a sort of crossroads. It still has one foot planted in a neorealist world with the other slowly entering a world of whimsy. It also suffered a production schedule that was as plagued with problems as the characters depicted therein.
The plot itself is relatively straightforward following a volatile strongman (Quinn) who buys a shy young woman off her mother to travel from town to town with him. He’s a real entertainer, and he teaches her most of what he knows so she can assist in the act. However, when they’re not working together, and the show is done, he goes right back to treating her badly and making life quite miserable for her. Zampano’s not the understanding sort.
Giulietta Masina has a starry-eyed quizzical face that elicits not so much a negative response, but one of perplexment. It’s the perfect visage for say a clown (which she masquerades as) since it can be so jovial and in the same instant sad and somehow distant. As her life on the road progresses she finally forgets loyalty and goes on her own to get away from Zampano’s abuse. While being alone she comes across the performance of a skilled acrobat (Richard Basehart) and what follows is a rocky partnership in a rat tag act that once again includes the strongman. But the constant heckling and joking of “The Fool” gets on Zampano’s nerves until things start to get violent. Once he gets out of prison for his behavior, he and Gelsomina get back together, but a run-in once more with his old nemesis turns out badly.
This time all the wind is taken out of her sails after what happens. She is a mime without any emotion, hardly any life left in her. One night Zampano leaves her behind in the night never to see or hear from her again. His existence from then on is as dismal as Gelsomina’s outcome.
Fellini himself suggested that La Strada was a very personal film, and it brings into question if he had a bit of Zampano and Gelsomina inside himself. La Strada also lacks the excess of his later films, instead contenting itself with simple roads and humble people — a stream of beautifully austere images without much extravagance. Also, with the character of Gelsomina comes a wistfulness that drives the tone of the film. As she contemplates with “The Fool,” everything must have a purpose, because if even a pebble has no purpose then everything is pointless. It’s in many ways a dismally bleak film, but still enduringly interesting.