I was browsing through the first few reviews of this movie at Rotten Tomatoes and came upon an idiot who shall not be named who gave it one star and had this to say: “Good luck staying awake.” Damn! Why can’t morons like that just stick to watching the latest Avengers or X-Men or Transformers mindless comic book adolescent garbage instead of attempting to see a real movie, with real humans who have real human flaws and feelings?
Okay, I just had to vent about that. This is Pope Francis’s favorite movie of all time. When it was new most critics hated it. There was actually a public fistfight at the Venice Film Festival instigated by Franco Zeffirelli, who I now believe was an asshole. He was so incensed that the Silver Lion Award went to Federico Fellini for this film, instead of Luchino Visconti’s Senso that he started blowing a whistle during the showing of La Strada. Somebody punched him out. I would have, too. … well, I would have thrown my popcorn at him, anyway.
Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is way beyond brilliant here. She is Gelsomina, a rather simple waif who is basically sold to a traveling strong man. She pretends to be sad, but when people aren’t looking at her she smiles. Show business! The strong man, Zampanò, played by Anthony Quinn in the performance of his life, mistreats her, but she is in love with him and even being treated like shit on la strada of life is better than what she had. She doesn’t talk a lot, and she doesn’t have to. She is a little Chaplin, and a little Harpo Marx. She even resembled Harpo.
If you haven’t seen it, stop here.
The ending is harsh. After Zampanò accidentally kills a tightrope-walking clown (Richard Basehart), he abandons her by the side of the road. Years later he is performing the exact same act he’s been doing for decades, using exactly the same pitch, and his heart just isn’t it in. He is dispirited, almost beaten down by life. He hears someone singing a song that Gelsomina used to sing (the La Strada theme, written by Nino Rota; you’ve probably heard it). He finds the singer and learns that a little woman came by some time ago, performing for spare change. She got sick, and died. Zampanò gets stinking drunk and collapses on the beach, and begins to sob uncontrollably. He realizes he has lost the only person who ever cared for him, a woman whom he loved, a love he could not express, or even admit it to himself. The brute is finally beaten down.
What can I say? It may be Fellini’s masterpiece, though I’m also a huge fan of Nights of Cabiria, which also stars Masina. If you can handle that much tragedy you really must see this one.