These notes accompany screenings of Federico Fellini’s La Strada on September 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3.
When Federico Fellini (1920–1993) followed I Vitelloni with La Strada, he was still in the throes of his neo-realist heritage and hadn’t yet been deified. The result is a modest and rather moving film, achieving a poignancy that Fellini’s facility and ego would frequently deny him in later years. By depicting the grotesque underbelly of Italian showbiz in the bleakest of landscapes, the director (like his mentor, Roberto Rossellini) was still able to convey genuine human feelings. In most subsequent films, this—and coherent narrative—would be overwhelmed by his gift for visual imagery at the service of what my late colleague, Stephen Harvey, dubbed the “phantasmagoria” that inhabited Felliniland.
A good deal of the film’s sweet pathos is due, of course, to Giulietta Masina (Mrs. Fellini), in the first of her four major roles for her husband (the others being Nights of Cabiria, Juliet of the Spirits, and Ginger and Fred). Masina’s performance has been described as Chaplinesque but, in reality, she more closely resembles Chaplin’s early musical-hall colleague, Stan Laurel. Brutishly treated by Anthony Quinn’s Zampano, Masina’s Gelsomina is periodically victimized, as Stan was by Oliver Hardy—and her response is a similarly goofy smile. Chaplin’s Tramp was always too wily to be ill treated for very long. However, Fellini loved Chaplin, and Nino Rota’s score is a clear homage to the master’s films, most notably The Circus.
Anthony Quinn is a whole other story. In fact, he built his 60-plus-year film career on being the screen’s foremost exotic “other.” He went from playing a Cheyenne for his father-in-law Cecil B. DeMille to a Chinaman, Spaniard, Italian, Hun, Eskimo, Frenchman, and Arab. He played Greeks from Zeus through Ulysses to Zorba, and occasionally he even played a Mexican, which he was by birth. Appropriately, he won an Oscar as Marlon Brando’s brother in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! He had inherited Brando’s role of Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, an early exercise in Zampano-like (albeit New Orleans-Polish) brutishness. Fortuitously, Quinn was making several pictures in Rome when Fellini was casting La Strada, and Roberto Rossellini recommended the actor, who offered the younger director someone with what one critic called the perfect “lust for overacting.”
It would be grossly unfair to say that following La Strada Fellini’s career went into precipitous decline. However, I do have issues. Masina’s next star turn, in Nights of Cabiria, was somewhat butchered before its release, but it won Fellini a second Oscar and won back the audience he might have lost with the bitter Il Bidone. By the time of the three-hour La Dolce Vita (1960), he begins to become problematic. Metaphorically, this bloated work too closely resembles the dead sea-creature washed up on the beach at the end of the film, itself reminiscent of Anthony Quinn’s flotsam-like body on the beach at the end of La Strada. To me, Fellini is signaling, somewhat prophetically, that he is out of both ideas and hope.
Of course, there are intermittent pleasures and rewards in 8½, Juliet of the Spirits, and the dozen or so progressively more self-indulgent and repetitive films Fellini made over the next quarter-century. His fame and fortune grew, but for all the intimations of personal revelation suggested by titling his films Fellini-this or Fellini-that, the director’s real personality remained elusive. To quote Stephen L. Hanson (whom we previously quoted on I Vitelloni), “Whether any of the films are truly autobiographical in any traditional sense is open to debate. They definitely do not interlock to provide a history of a man….”