December 4, 2001
Before legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini established himself as international filmmaking force with La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), he cut his teeth on intimate slices of life like, La Strada (1954). The Criterion Collection has taken this much beloved film and lovingly assembled a beautiful looking print with a collection of extras that mirror the simple approach of the film itself.
After her sister mysteriously dies in the employ of vagabond strongman, Zampano (Quinn), Gelsomina is sold to him by her mother. She goes on the road with the gruff, cruel man and becomes his sidekick and assistant, providing musical accompaniment to his act. And so begins an atmospheric road movie as Zampano and Gelsomina travel the country, across barren landscapes and through crowded cites. Along the way, they join a traveling circus where Gelsomina meets The Fool (Basehart), an accomplished acrobat who sees the world as a big joke. The Fool becomes friends with Gelsomina which doesn’t sit well with Zampano, who has always had a grudge against him. This causes a conflict whose resolution ends in tragedy for all involved.
If there is any role that Anthony Quinn will be remembered for it should be this one. He is perfectly cast as the big, burly, barrel-chested strongman. It’s an effective performance as he uses his imposing physique to intimidate and dominate those around him. He portrays Zampano as a selfish, self-destructive man that would inspire Martin Scorsese’s unflinching look at another grotesque brute, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980).
However, the film belongs to Giuletta Masina and her absolutely heartbreaking performance as Gelsomina. With her small, delicate figure and large expressive eyes, she is a sharp contrast to Quinn’s muscular strongman. Masina doesn’t have to say much because she perfectly conveys how she feels through her facial features or through her body movements like a silent actor. In many respects, Masina’s pure-hearted character who is bullied by the world and destined for a tragic end, anticipates the innocent martyrs of Lars Von Trier’s recent films like, Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).
The first disc has an introduction by Martin Scorsese. He talks about why La Strada is his favourite pre-8 1/2 Fellini film and what makes it work so well. However, beware—if you haven’t seen La Strada before watch this intro after you’ve seen the movie because he reveals several major spoilers.
There is also an excellent theatrical trailer from the time of its release. It is interesting to see how different films were marketed in the ‘50s then they are now.
The stand out feature is an audio commentary by Peter Bondanella, professor of comparative literature and Italian at Indiana University and author of Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. He goes into great detail about the film’s themes, the filmmaking techniques that Fellini used and their effects and its relation to the filmmaker’s other works. Bondanella also addresses Fellini’s fascination with the circus. The filmmaker felt it showcased various forms of entertainment from one act to another with no relation to each other and this represented his love for the diversity of humanity. His commentary is also filled with interesting anecdotal information. For example, producer Dino De Laurentiis originally wanted Burt Lancaster to play Zampano because the actor used to be a professional acrobat before he became a thespian.
The second DVD features the last remaining extra—“Federico Fellini’s Autobiography,” an hour-long documentary by Paquito Del Bosco. There are several interviews with the filmmaker on the sets La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Fellini speaks quite eloquently of his craft. It is great to see the man in his element, hard at work on a film.
La Strada is like a time machine in that it takes the viewer to another time and place. This film is a wonderful window into a world rich in detail and populated with engaging characters. The folks at Criterion have assembled a near flawless transfer that preserves Otello Martelli’s stunning black and white cinematography. The film has never looked better.