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‘La Strada’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1994

A deceptively simple and poetic parable, Federico Fellini's "La Strada" was the focus of a critical debate when it premiered in 1954 simply because it marked Fellini's break with neorealism -- the hard-knocks school that had dominated Italy's postwar cinema.

"{Neorealism should embrace} not just social reality, but spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, all that there is within man," said Fellini to his detractors, mostly Marxists who labeled him a traitor to the genre and therefore to their cause.

While the neorealists defined their characters according to social circumstances, the characters of "La Strada" -- which is being re-released in Washington today -- exist outside these confines in an ambiguous time and place. The neorealists saw the wasted land, the ragged people, but Fellini looked up and saw that there were stars. Not that he ignored the poverty of the period: "La Strada," which means "the road," takes place in a hovel on wheels. The Oscar-winning film is quite literally a road movie, with its picaresque plot and its cast of traveling performers: Zampano, a brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn); Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina), his simple-minded assistant; and Il Matto (Richard Basehart), a bitter tightrope walker.

Zampano comes to a seaside village to purchase a second assistant from the impoverished woman who had already sold him her eldest daughter, Rosa, who died in his care.

Though it breaks her heart, the woman takes 10,000 lire for Gelsomina, a wide-eyed naif who sets off with Zampano in his motorcycle-trailer. He dresses her as a clown and teaches her to beat a drum and pass the hat before and during his pathetic act of breaking a chain with his chest.

Though he abuses her both physically and sexually, Gelsomina is hurt most by Zampano's indifference to the wonders of the road, from the tomato seeds she plants, to the music of Il Matto's violin. Zampano, who often warms up the crowd by warning that the act can cause blindness, is blind to anything but his physical needs -- food, drink, sex and sleep.

After another futile attempt at communicating with the oaf, Gelsomina runs away and encounters Il Matto (The Fool), who is performing his tightrope act in a neighboring village. Wearing wings and bumblebee tights, he is obviously Zampano's ethereal opposite. When the three characters come together at a traveling circus, the two men feud and Zampano is jailed.

The circus folk invite Gelsomina to join them, then Il Matto asks her to leave with him, but she stays behind to wait for Zampano. It's a decision that Il Matto unwittingly influences in a bit of dialogue that Millicent Marcus, author of "Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism," calls the thematic center of the film.

"Everything in this world is good for something. Take ... this stone, for example," says Il Matto in hopes of convincing Gelsomina of her life's worth. "What's it good for?" she asks. "I don't know ... but it certainly has its use. If it were useless, then everything would be useless -- even the stars."

Gelsomina takes his parable to mean that her place is with Zampano, a notion that is reinforced when she and Zampano, now on the road again, are taken in by a convent on a bitter night. "You follow your bridegroom, I follow mine," observes one of the nuns, whose selflessness is even stronger than Gelsomina's (less likely than even Cinderella to be embraced by today's enlightened woman).

Martin Scorsese, who is behind the film's re-release, recalls in a recent article for the New York Times, "I was enthralled by the film's resolution, where the power of the spirit overwhelms brute force." It is essentially a story of redemption rooted in the religious aesthetic that predated neorealism. The simplicity of the plot harks back to the medieval morality play and, as Marcus points out, to the tradition of commedia dell'arte, with its stock roles and clownish costumes.

As Gelsomina, Fellini's wife and muse Masina is literally dressed as a clown, in outsize shoes and pants and baggy hat. Her performance inspired comparisons to Chaplin when first reviewed, yet she reminds me more of Harpo Marx, with her haystack hair and her saucer eyes. There's some of Harpo and even more Groucho in Basehart's whistling wiseacre Il Matto too. Quinn, who was fresh from a Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," brought more than a little Stanley to Zampano.

It's Gelsomina's sad clown face that remains the film's most haunting image, vividly photographed in black-and-white by Otello Martelli. As French critic Andre Bazin pointed out, "The Fellini character does not evolve; he ripens." And so do his movies.

"La Strada" is in Italian with English subtitles.

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