What's the Big Deal?: La Strada (1954)

Federico Fellini's La Strada is so highly regarded that we don't even bother translating its title into English. (Just as well: "The Road" is boring.) While the Italian director's later movies La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 got more acclaim and are more firmly fixed on the list of the world's most beloved movies, it was La Strada that put him on the map. But why is that? What does La Strada have to offer us? Let's punch a clown in the face and investigate.

The praise: La Strada was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered in September 1954. When it was finally released in the United States, in 1956, it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film -- it was the first year that category existed, and the first of four wins for Fellini films -- and was also nominated for best original screenplay.

The context: Federico Fellini (1920-1993), probably the best-known Italian director in the history of cinema, started his movie career on the screenwriting side of things, working regularly in that capacity throughout the 1940s and learning from such established filmmakers as Roberto Rossellini and Alberto Lattuada. Two of the films Fellini co-wrote during that period -- Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), both directed by Rossellini -- were nominated for best screenplay Academy Awards.

It was in collaboration with Lattuada that Fellini co-directed, co-wrote, and co-produced his first feature, Variety Lights (1950), before embarking on his first truly solo effort, The White Sheik (1952), which flopped. ("This one was just a practice swing," said The New York Times when it played in the U.S. in April 1956.) He followed it with I vitelloni (1953), which did much better.

And then came La Strada. Before this, Fellini had mostly worked with practitioners of Italian Neorealism, a style that emphasized Italy's dire economic and social conditions following the devastation of World War II. (The go-to example of Neorealism is Bicycle Thieves.) Fellini's first few movies had begun to introduce comedy and other artistic elements to Neorealism, and La Strada was seen by Neorealists as a complete abandonment of their principles. They were angry, too.

Anyone watching La Strada now will think the Neorealists were too hasty. The film is about a girl who's sold by her impoverished family to a brutish traveling performer, exactly the kind of dreary but all-too-plausible scenario Neorealism favored. But Fellini tells it in a simple way and embellishes it with creative expression, so that it becomes more like an allegory than a stark depiction of postwar life. Those were no-nos to Neorealists.

To everyone else, though, it was OK that Fellini was helping transition Italy away from Neorealism. Conditions in that country weren't entirely awesome yet, but things were rapidly improving. Audiences didn't feel like it was necessary to be reminded of despair and suffering anymore. They'd been reminded plenty, thank you -- and, even better, much of that suffering was being alleviated. La Strada was a step forward in the evolution of Italian film, mingling the Neorealist traits with something more forward-thinking and imaginative.

Fellini cast Giuletta Masina, his wife and muse, as the film's odd, clownish girl. It was common at the time for Hollywood actors to make movies in Italy, and Fellini took advantage of Anthony Quinn's presence -- he was starring in Attila with Sophia Loren -- by hiring him to play the lead in La Strada. Richard Basehart was similarly signed on. Those two delivered their lines in English (which you can tell by watching their mouths) and were dubbed into Italian. When an English-dubbed version played in the United States, Quinn and Basehart's original voices were restored.

La Strada was a big hit in Italy and became Fellini's first movie to get significant attention in the United States -- but not until two years later. It opened in New York City in July 1956, accompanied by a favorable review in The New York Times that began thus: "Although Federico Fellini's talents as a director have not been displayed to advantage heretofore in these parts, his La Strada (The Road), which arrived at the Fifty-second Street Trans-Lux yesterday, is a tribute both to him and the Italian neo-realistic school of film-making." I Vitelloni was soon released in New York as well. From then on Fellini's movies usually played in American cinemas in a more timely fashion. He had arrived on the world stage.

The movie: A traveling entertainer named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) buys a feeble-minded girl named Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) to be his apprentice, sidekick, and concubine. They travel the Italian countryside and end up working for a circus, where a Fool (Richard Basehart) harasses Zampano.

What it influenced: According to their authors, at least two notable popular songs were inspired by Fellini's road movie: Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" ("Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose") and "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan.

Somewhat less famous was the musical version of La Strada that opened on Broadway on Dec. 14, 1969, and closed, um, three hours later. Yeah, one performance and it was gone. It had music and lyrics by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) and starred Bernadette Peters as Gelsomina.

What to look for: Fellini's trademarks were already in place. La Strada has seashores, angelic figures, a narcissistic man, a prostitute, a circus, village squares, deserted roads, parades -- all the things that tended to appear in Fellini's movies.

Gelsomina is simple-minded, perhaps mildly retarded. She's also a natural-born clown (as was the actress who played her), and critics at the time compared her to Charlie Chaplin. She represents the innocence of nature and is the embodiment of pure Christianity: kindness, selflessness, and forgiveness. Zampano is the opposite, the brutal animal governed by his physical desires. About the only thing they have in common is that neither of them is very smart.

What's the big deal: With La strada, Fellini established himself as an international director of great renown, and he helped Italian cinema transition from Neorealism into its next phase. The movie also encapsulates many of Fellini's favorite themes, serving as an appetizer for what he would do later, in his full bloom. Were it not for the success he found here, who can say when -- if ever -- Fellini would have become an influential filmmaker? This is where our interest in all things Fellini-esque begins.

Further reading: David Ehrenstein's essay from the Criterion Collection is a good, brief introduction, while Roger Ebert's lengthier appreciation goes into more detail about the movie's themes.

Related columns: "What's the Big Deal?: Bicycle Thieves (1948)" (for the scoop on Italian Neorealism); "What's the Big Deal?: La Dolce Vita (1960)" (Fellini's next landmark); and "What's the Big Deal?: 8 1/2 (1963)" (another Fellini must-see).