La Strada is Frederico Fellini’s fourth film and the one that made his international reputation.
Starring Anthony Quinn as Zampanò the Strongman and the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina, as the waif Gelsomina, it is a story of love and jealousy set in the circus, a milieu to which Fellini returns time and again.
Zampanò does a hackneyed routine of bursting out of chains wrapped around his chest.
He needs an assistant, so he buys Gelsomina from her mother to accompany him on the road. She acts as a clown, and her gestures are reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.
When they join a travelling circus, Gelsomina is temporarily fascinated by an acrobat, the Fool, played by Richard Baseheart, and while he treats her badly, Zampanò becomes jealous of the Fool and his actions lead the film to its powerful conclusion.
Although it is shot on location, La Strada could take place in the present day or it could be 100 years ago. Zampanò and Gelsomina are archetypes – simple character driven by the most elemental emotions and desires.
The action of the film plays out as though it is predetermined and these characters must act as they do, which makes the story tragic.
Masina’s moving portrayal of the abused but plucky Gelsomina would define her screen persona in several later Fellini films, and in much of her other work as an actress.
Quinn is equally unforgettable as the brutish strongman, incapable of understanding his own feelings toward Gelsomina.
Both actors highlight the disjuncture between their character’s performances and the realities of their lives. Throughout his work, Fellini was fascinated by the tension between a character’s theatrical facade and his or her unexplored, messy interior life.
La Strada won the Academy Award for best foreign film and is probably the director’s most accessible and well-loved picture.