Sunday 9 August 2015

The Road (La Strada) (1954)

La Strada

I am sorry to say it, but ”La Strada” is not my favorite movie ever. Not even close.

This movie was recommended to me and everything I have heard and read about it had prepared me for a movie that should knock the socks off me. Not to mention the ton of prizes and general recognition it has won. Sadly it did not click with me. In fact I find it hard to see what makes this movie exceptional and that makes me question what I got out of it. Somehow I feel that I missed something.

“La Strada” is about a street performer, Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and his sidekick, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). Zampano bought Gelsomina from her mother for 10.000 lire and feels that he owns her. He is a brutal giant of a man and it is telling that his one act is to break a chain with his chest. Gelsomina is an odd character, dreamy and sensitive, but also supposed to be simple, naïve and submissive. In that sense I suppose they fit each other.

Zampano trains Gelsomina to assist him with simple chores and she makes people laugh dressed up as a clown. Together they travel around performing in the streets and at festivals large and small, living in Zampano’s cramped and smelly motorbike van.

Soon Gelsomina gets fed up with Zampano’s brutality and she wants to leave him. She is not successful and soon she is back under the boot. In fact this is repeated a number of times. She could have left with a circus, stayed with a convent or left with the Fool (Richard Basehart), but she always stay with Zampano. The Fool in particular offers a way out and though infatuated by him he also offers her the explanation why she is staying with Zampano. According to The Fool Gelsomina and Zampano need each other and that that is the purpose of their lives and so Gelsomina stays. 

Then eventually Zampano in one of his usual fits of fury kills the Fool and Gelsomina loses it completely. From then on she is completely stuck in an internal world of grief. Zampano gets sick of this and leaves Gelsomina on a cold day wrapped up in blankets. 

Years later Zampano finds out that Gelsomina eventually died of her grief and then also Zampano breaks down.

Ah well.

I understand that this is something about fatalism, about believing that somebody is meant for each other and about realizing that this is so. In this case Gelsomina comes to terms with her fate after talking with the Fool and the boneheaded Zampano only realizes this years later when he finds out she is dead.

I find this kind of fatalism both tragic and more than a little silly, though I know it is a core religious thought to find and settle on a meaning with the life you have. What I see in this movie is a woman kept in a slave like relationship by a brutal man who finds an outlet for his own frustrations in violence. He does not need Gelsomina, he needs a dog. Someone he can kick and yell at, but will remain faithful and lick him in the face no matter how it is treated. This is role he gives Gelsomina. 

Gelsomina on the other hand does not need Zampano. She needs something like the convent or the social network of the circus. People who will accept her as she is and treat her with respect. Yet she misses every opportunity to leave Zampano. The belief that she belongs to Zampano and that they need each other is false and simply an excuse for failure. Nothing ties them together. No children, no marriage, no law, nothing. She should have left him long ago and there were plenty of opportunities.

One can argue that Gelsomina is a simple person and it is hinted at that she should be to some extent retarded and that this is why she chooses the simple but stupid solution to stay with Zampano, but I do not buy that. At critical points she is very lucid indeed and fully aware who she is and what she is doing. She may be a dreamer, but stupid she is not. Instilling the fantasy in such a person that she should belong to Zampano seems to me the greater violation here and the Fool is the guilty one as well as Gelsomina herself. The scene where she leaves the convent and cries is heartbreaking because I know she knows that this is where she belongs.

So what is the message here? That fate is written and we better face up to it? Or that some people are abused in the name of fate? Or that we are supposed to feel sorry for people who believe in fate or, in extension of that, in bullies that are just too stupid to treat people properly?

Probably because of my lack of empathy for the people involved I did not feel engaged in this movie. Not like” The Bicycle Thieves” or “Roma, Open City”. This may be a Fellini thing. I recently saw “I Vitelloni” and that also left me cold. The Book writes that this is the directors most loved and accessible movie and that does not bode well for the many Fellini movies down the road for me. I can only hope the book is wrong.

There are positives though. Both Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina are doing an excellent job with their roles. Both are making quite unique personalities believable. Masina does things to her face and body language that makes her look like a natural clown and that is downright eerie.
I also think the production value is high considering the tight budget this movie was made on. They did well with their limited resources.

Ultimately however I think that somewhere between the dismal settings, depressing story and a point that eludes me (unless I am right that this is an unsympathetic story about fatalism) I just did not like this movie. I am all for social message films, but this one just made me angry with the characters and ultimately the director and that I doubt is the point.


  1. Gee, I have to see this again so we can talk about it. All I can say right at the moment is that I got something completely different out of it than you did. Glad you liked Messina's performance. To me she has one of the great faces in all acting.

    1. Yes, you have mentioned that you liked La Strada and for that reason all on its own I was expecting a lot from it. Alas as the movie wore on I was starting to wonder if we were talking two different movies. I would love to hear what you got out of it.

    2. I've been thinking about it. It may be that the story seemed to me to be a tragedy. To me, Massina's character was a good, simple soul that was crushed by life. I can see that if looked at another way a person could just be annoyed by all the characters.

      If it's any reassurance about the future I would say that NIghts of Cabiria is Fellini's most accessible film. At least I haven't run into many folks who dislike it.

    3. PS I think she stayed with him because she knew he would be lost without her. Not rational but perhaps not that uncommon either.

    4. That is a relief, I have heard good things about Nights of Cabiria.

      Well, this is actually my point. Gelsomina have these very lucid moments where she thinks clearly and not retarded at all, yet she commits herself to such a destructive fate even when much better options are at hand. If it is because she cares about Zampano then she must have a very strong masochistic trait. It is not as if he is showing any affection for her, not more than he would a dog.

  2. I'm with you. A lot of Fellini seems to miss me, and this one missed me more than I expected it to. It left me very underwhelmed for a film that was supposed to be so formative and important.

    1. Yes, "supposed to be" and I think that is the clue. This is a hype thing and we are expected to see things that are just not there.

  3. I'm with you and Steve. I was completely underwhelmed by this after all I had heard about it. And I had an unfortunate thought occur to me while watching that I just couldn't get out of my head - she was practically doing a Harpo Marx impersonation. She's almost mute, makes the funny faces, wore a similar hat, etc. and that kept me from being able to take her character seriously.

    1. Harpo Marx is a good comparison. I am happy I was spared that thought.
      To me her clowning was part of a character construct that I just did not understand. Is she a comedian? A retard. A dreamer perhaps? I just did not get that.