If you were to ask really movie buffs to name the most influential directors of the non-English speaking world, three directors’ names would invariably be mentioned: Akira Kurosawa of Japan, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, and Federico Fellini of Italy. I haven’t seen any Bergman pictures yet (although there are many to come for this blog), but I’ve seen several Kurosawa pictures, and they are always spectacular. La Strada marked my formal introduction to the films of Federico Fellini, and when the final credits rolled, this incredibly complex and artistic film left me confused as to what it is that I had just watched.
The plot of the film is simple enough and is not where my confusion lies. Gelsomina is an impoverished country girl that is sold by her mother to traveling circus performer Zampano (played marvelously by Anthony Quinn). Gelsomina is quite dim-witted but generally innocent and pure. Her facial expressions and physical gestures give the obvious impression of an attempt at a sort of female Charlie Chaplin. Her actress Giulietta Massina is not given many lines but she is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions simply through her physical expression which is an impressive feat. Zampano, on the other hand, is a dim-witted womanizing brute and drunk who puts Gelsomina through an incredible amount of suffering throughout the course of the film. Rounding out the primary cast is Richard Basehart as The Fool, another traveling performer who gets entangled in a doomed love triangle with Gelsomina and Zampano. The film basically follows Gesolmina’s life as she is dragged from place to place with the menacing Zampano, and that is really the entire film.
This film feels so much like the biggest possible spiritual predecessor to any sort of modern indie art house film. Symbolism is rife throughout. Nothing really major ever happens through out the entire film. There isn’t any sort of grand statement to be made about life or politics or the world. It just follows the minutiae of its two main characters (and the one major supporter) and lets their lives do the talking. That’s where my confusion with the film lies. I’m not entirely sure what in the hell the point of the film was. Nothing important or significant enough ever happens (with one glaring exception) to ever be able to wrest any sort of higher meaning away from the film. All of the scenes contain their own sort of beauty and power, but I still haven’t been able to figure out what is the over-arching thread that ties them all together.
The cinematography and direction of the film was outstanding however. You can clearly see the influence that Fellini’s camera working would have on generations of future film-makers and it was really ahead of its time. That was probably the aspect of the film (along with the acting) that managed to keep me engaged with the material even after I’d decided I was completely lost on where this film was taking me. This film really, really, really isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy artier pictures and you don’t necessarily need a plot that is coherent or even important, you should check it out for its role in cinematic history as a product of a man considered to be one of the all time greats.
Final Score: B