One of the 15 films listed in the category "Art" on the Vatican film list. A National Catholic Register "Video/DVD Picks" film.
Federico Fellini’s La Strada leaves me cold. Seldom have I watched so revered a film by so important a director and felt so little in response. It’s not just that it’s a difficult film. Many films on a first viewing have left me baffled and reeling without leaving me indifferent. I’ve been thrown by Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Bergman, Kieslowski — and what a haunting, intriguing, enriching experience it was on each of those occasions. Even with Fellini himself, while I still have very little idea what to make of 8½, it has a power for me that I cannot find in La Strada.
As yet, I have found no illumination in critical accolades and explanations. No critical account of La Strada I have read has struck me as compelling or illuminating. Pauline Kael famously wrote that the three main characters represent the flesh, the spirit, and the mind. But the same could be said for virtually any trinity of characters, from Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to Mr. Toad, Mole, and Rat, and what light this paradigm sheds on this particular story is unclear to me. Alan Stone calls it "a parable about Italy under fascism and the possibility of Christian Salvation," but I can’t see that it has anything interesting to say about this either, or that it says it in an interesting way.
Ironically, La Strada is the one film in Fellini’s oeuvre that it seems practically everyone else can agree on, whether they are Fellini skeptics or Fellini enthusiasts. It’s the cardinal work of his career, the turning point from his Italian neorealist roots to the florid imagery and surreal narrative style that has come to be known as "Felliniesque." For skeptics who deplore the self-indulgence and grotesquerie of his later films, La Strada is the career high point preceding his deterioration. For enthusiasts, it represents the filmmaker’s first excursion into the parade of gaudy carnival set pieces, uncomprehending men baffled by archetypal innocent or carnal women, and the mystery of the sea that would recur throughout his most distinctive films.
Structurally, the film has the simplicity and directness of a morality tale or a parable. A brutal strongman named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) buys a waiflike simpleton named Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) to use in his sideshow act. Despite her natural buoyancy, Gelsomina is fairly miserable in her new life on the road until her imagination is fired by the Fool (Richard Basehart), a jester-like tightrope walker who antagonizes Zampanò. The inevitable conflict leads to tragic consequences, climaxing in a moment of ambiguous revelation.
This story has a fable-like feel reminiscent of, say, The Bicycle Thief. Yet unlike The Bicycle Thief and other works in the Italian neorealist tradition, La Strada offers us no more psychological or emotional insight into its characters than they have into themselves. Zampanò, Gelsomina, and the Fool are closed books; they are defined by their actions, not their inner lives. How Gelsomina can be so loyal to Zampanò, why the Fool is so reckless, and what exactly happens in Zampanò’s stony heart are questions onto which the film sheds little light.
In the end, it becomes clear that if the story has a protagonist, it is not Gelsomina, but Zampanò. Yet his character is so one-dimensional and unsympathetic, and we know so little about him, that it’s hard to be very invested in his fate for his own sake. Some meaningful insight into his character or his experience might make it all worthwhile. Yet what we are finally offered is not an insight, but a fact. Something has happened, but what, and how, and what it means, are open to interpretation.
Films that are open to interpretation, I can deal with, but I need something from them that Fellini doesn’t give me. The defect may be in me. Perhaps if I were a better person, La Strada would be a deeper film. As it is, the most I can say for it is that the film’s place in the canon of cinema is sufficiently secure that anyone who cares about film ought to see it and judge it for himself.
Though more of a Fellini skeptic than not myself, I can’t go along with the common opinion that Fellini’s early neorealist-inflected works, culminating in La Strada, are his best, and that the later, increasingly surreal cinema of the gaudy and fantastical represented by 8½ is self-indulgently trivial by comparison.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.