Gelsomina is sold by her very poor mother to Zampano, an itinerant strongman. She follows him on the road ("la strada") and helps him during his shows. Zampano ill treats her. She meets "The Fool", a funambulist. She feels like going with him, but he puts confusion in her mind by pointing out that perhaps Zampano is in fact in love with her.
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Federico Fellini's La Strada of 1954 is considered his first great masterpiece. It is a stepping stone to his later masterpieces, and there are aspects of this early film found in such films as La Dolce Vita, 81/2, and Le Notti de Cabiria, such as the circus, religious imagery, travel along the Italian countryside, and a womanizing, lonely male character- many of these are used often in Fellini's repertoire. But this is a wonderful film all on its own; a great Fellini film if a viewer has not yet seen his work, or if one has seen his later films and wants to work backwards, it works just as well.
La Strada is the heartwarming yet tragic tale of Gelsomina and Zampano, entertaining gypsies who travel the countryside performing for the townspeople. In my opinion, the film is carried by Gelsomina (played by Fellini's wife, the wonderful Giulietta Masina). Her character is childlike and naïve, but full of life and warmth, and extremely comical. She goes to work for Zampano (the strong man who carries his own act, and occasionally joins the circus), not of her own accord but because she is sold by her mother. After Gelsomina's sister Rosa dies while working for Zampano, he comes back to the family with the news, and to find a replacement. They travel alone together on the road (la strada), while he teaches her acts and drum rolls, while picking up women along the way, unsympathetic to her feelings on the matter, until they join a circus and meet with real conflict to Zampano's manliness in the form of the Fool, another entertainer who eats spaghetti on a tightrope and plays a miniature violin.
Such are the ridiculous situations and fantastical people a viewer must accept while watching Fellini. The filmmaker came out of the Italian Neo-Realism movement, but he added his own style to the realism, creating a kind of magical and surrealist version, more prominent in his later works, but present here as well. This mix of rustic Italian landscapes and peasant life with the magic of the circus and wandering artists creates an intriguing and unique cinematic world.
With this backdrop, the story focuses on the two main characters: the warm hearted Gelsomina who is intrigued by everything that she discovers and delighted by her new traveling life, and Zampano, the hard hearted, rough and mean “artist” (played by the very versatile Anthony Quinn). They have their own conflicts of personality: the more she cares for him, the less he seems to care for her, but near the end, he finally begins to allow himself be softened by her character. He never responds to her interest in his background, never replies when she quietly asks whether he likes her just a little, but in a small act of kindness, he finally gives her the trumpet she has come to love playing. Once tragedy strikes, however, a future for them is lost, since Gelsomina is not able to deal with the cruelties and unfairness of life. It is a truly heartfelt manifestation of human relationships, differences of personality and what one human can bring to another. Gelsomina will capture your soul with her Chaplinesque manner and childlike charm, as well as her mature understanding of friendship and love that Zampano cannot grasp.
Adding to the story and style created by Fellini and his actors, the film is brought to life by the music of Nino Rota and the cinematography of Otello Martelli, frequent collaborators of Fellini. Nino Rota is remembered for his great scores of Italian and American films; in addition to Fellini's greatest films, he composed Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet and yes, The Godfather. La Strada is certainly one of his best scores, if not most famous. The playful and strange circus theme and the sad but beautiful love theme that Gelsomina learns to play on the trumpet come together to capture the heart of the film.
In La Strada, an audience of today will find the timelessness of Fellini's work capturing not only a very Italian personality and people, but also global themes of humanity and friendship, and the playfulness and tragedy of life.