La Strada. The Road. The road of life. Hah! Symbolism! Don’t be afraid of a little symbolism. Fellini certainly wasn’t. You can read the network of roads the characters travel as signifying the connectedness that is a major theme of this film and, of course, a biological necessity for human beings. . Children. In scene after scene there are children. Yes, they can signify the lack of birth control in Catholic Italy, but they are in motion, constant motion without purpose. Does that signify our characters on their road of life? Ever moving on, their only purpose is to work and make a living—to what end? The film begins (and will end) by the sea, always a sign of transformation for Fellini. A rich symbol, we could read it as life-giving—or killing; as fertile and as sterile; as deep and inexhaustible; as familiar and unknowable; as yielding nothing or monsters; as always changing and always the same, like a symbol. Fellini shamelessly taps into these symbolic possibilities as he tells his essentially simple story.
In the first shot we see, walking by the sea, Gelsomina, a small woman of indeterminate age who is not quite “all there,” eloquently played by Giuletta Masina. Miserably poor, her mother sells Gelsomina for 10,000 lire and a few pounds of food. She sells her to Zampanò, a brutish man, who had previously bought her sister, now dead, to assist in his strong man show. In his act which he takes from town to town, Zampanò breaks an iron chain by expanding his chest. (Breaking a connection?) Gelsomina is to collect tips from the audiences and perform drum rolls and sleep with Zampanò in his three-wheeled motorcycle-truck.
All this Fellini gives us in a gray and gritty neo-realist style, realism anchored in the wretched poverty of wartime and postwar Italy. But to the dismay of Fellini’s neo-realist and communist critics, Fellini infused that style with his personal circus-y approach to life, and he embedded symbols, some of them (horrors!) religious. The film sparked an inky war among critics, even a fist fight at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.
At first Gelsomina is pleased: she is going to learn a trade; she will sing and dance and see the world. But as soon as they set out, Zampanò turns brutal. He beats Gelsomina to teach her the drum rolls and the rest. Eventually she runs away from his harsh treatment and comes upon three musicians walking along (a Fellini “miracle”); they boost her spirits and lead her to a huge religious procession. (I read that Fellini persuaded the priest in charge to move it up a couple of days and so got 4000 extras for free.) Finally she sees another kind of show, a tight-rope walker high above the crowd, Il Matto, the Fool. But Zampanò catches her and beats her and forces her back into the truck.
The two of them turn up at a traveling circus that has an atmosphere of family and togetherness and love, and there she sees the tight-rope walker again, now playing a little violin. Zampanò and Gelsomina join the circus and, as soon as he sees Zampanò, the Fool begins taunting him. Zampanò flies into a rage and the next time, he chases him with a knife. The police come and Zampanò has to spend the night in jail.
Zampanò doesn’t know what the Fool has against him, and the Fool repeatedly says that he doesn’t know why he feels this compulsion to taunt Zampanò, a compulsion that could and will lead to his death. He can’t know because his character and Zampanò’s emerge from the dark mists of antiquity, specifically Greek Old Comedy (Aristophanes). Anthony Quinn as Zampanò is playing the alazon, a boastful bully of a man who pretends to be more than he is. Richard Basehart as Il Matto is playing his opposite, the eiron, the slight, ironic man who pretends to be less than he is. Fellini, as an Italian, lived among these myths and types. There was direct descent from Greek Old Comedy to Greek New Comedy (Menander) to Roman comedy (Plautus, Terence) to commedia dell’arte where these characters are the “boastful soldier,” the miles gloriosus, and the Pierrot. They go on to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century comedies of Molière and Goldoni and from there to Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, and finally Fellini. Why does the Fool taunt Zampanò? Because he is an eiron, and that is what eirons do, they taunt and outwit alazons.
Where does Gelsomina fit in? According to the typology developed by famed critic Northrup Frye, she would be the bomolochos, a buffoonish character who just clowns around but also adds an element of magic and mystery (that strange confrontation between her and the sick boy upstairs or her talk with the nun about their “husbands”).
I believe that at the most ancient level, the eiron-alazon ritual struggle comes from prehistoric ritual dramas designed to ensure the continuing fertility of the land. A character representing death and infertility fights a character representing the fertile cycles of death-and-rebirth. The winner (who has to be the death-and-rebirth character) marries a silent woman, representing the mute earth. The pattern pops up in various literary works, for example, Ben Jonson’s Epicœne, or The Silent Woman (1609) or Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1598). In the long clown tradition of Europe, Zampanò is the auguste clown, the black- or redfaced clown and the Fool is the classic whiteface clown (the white signifying death and rebirth). Gelsomina is the one to be won. And that, of course, signals the crucial episode in La Strada.
Il Matto, the Fool, the holy fool, really, is a Christ-figure. His name, after all, is Nazareno. He sports a silver hat in lieu of a halo, and he wears angel wings. He appears after a religious festival, and he is, as he says, “between heaven and earth.” That’s why, “I’m the one who’s gonna die young.” Gelsomina tells him her despair: “I’m no use to anybody and I’m sick of living.” Nazareno replies with an idea of St. Francis. “You may not believe it, but everything in this world has a purpose, even this pebble.” “If this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless. Even the stars. At least I think so.” “And you too. You have a purpose too.” “Maybe he likes you.” This is a new idea to Gelsomina, and she brightens. “If I don’t stay with him, who will?” And the Fool gives her the fateful pebble, which entrances her. (Upon this rock I will build my church, says Matthew 16:18.) Il Matto has given Gelsomina a purpose in life. Later he will give her a holy symbol to wear.
Tbis is a film about connections. The very title, the road, is something that connects. Fellini specifically associates the Fool with uniting and connecting things as in this speech. He relies on a tight-rope, and as he points out he would die if it broke. He plays a stringed instrument. He is between heaven and earth. His music and pranks connect people. He tries to hold the circus together. He gets Gelsomina to feel she has a purpose in life, and he takes her back to Zampanò.
By contrast Zampanò breaks and separates things, most obviously the chains that he breaks in his act and taking Gelsomina away from her family. There’s the breaking of Gelsomina’s virginity. He also leads to the three of them leaving the circus and the circus leaving town. At the wedding, he gets new, dark clothes and a hat. (By contrast, the Fool had swapped his hat with a couple of other clowns—he does not need to own it.) Not for Zampanò is “everyone working together.” Nor a stringed instrument—rather, the empty drum. He abandons Gelsomina. And, of course, there is the killing at the crossroads. Zampanò is a force of disconnection and death. In the finale, he crashes around a bar and is thrown out. He is finally, tragically, alone.
After Il Matto restores Gelsomina to Zampanò, they stop by the sea, always with Fellini a sign of transformation. Here it is Gelsomina’s newfound purpose. The next episode finds Zampanò and Gelsomina at a nunnery, where they are allowed to spend the night. A young nun pronounces the tune Gelsomina plays on her trumpet beautiful (in a way consecrating it), and from here on it is her leitmotiv. The Fool also played it on his tiny violin.
Gelsomina and the nun talk. “You follow your husband and I follow mine.” Gelsomina seems to feel she has a vocation like the nun’s, and she tries to elicit some sign of affection from Zampanò, but of course she gets nothing back. Another connection snapped.
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe there are such things as spoilers, but if you do, stop reading now, because I want to discuss what happens after Il Matto’s crucial speech and the visit to the convent and later, the sea, where yet again Zampanò rejects her.
In the episode after the sea, Gelsomina and Zampanò in their truck come to a crossroad, and there is the Fool changing a tire (note the circle). He yet again razzes Zampanò, and Zampanò beats and kills him. (As Zampanò drags the body to a hiding place, it looks crucified.) Gelsomina is traumatized. She whimpers, cries, and stays mute for weeks. Zampanò tells her she is sick in the head, and she is. Finally on a snowy hill she speaks, “The Fool is hurt.” “If I don’t stay with you, who will?” “I wanted to run away, but he told me to stay with you.” She falls asleep, and Zampanò puts by her a blanket, some money, and the trumpet. Then he abandons her.
Four or five years pass, another circus, another town. Zampanò hears a woman singing Gelsomina’s little tune, and asks where she learned it. This family had found her and taken her in. She never spoke (a silent woman) and died. Zampanò gets drunk in a bar, brawls, is thrown out. “I don’t need no friends.” “I don’t need anybody.”
He goes down to the beach, the sea, where he collapses in tears. His posture is like Gelsomina’s when he left her. That’s the last shot. What is he feeling? Grief at Gelsomina’s death? Probably. Remorse at the way he treated her? Maybe. The vision of the rest of his life, a solitary, unloved man—I think so. More? Imagine in your own terms the tangle of emotions that has overcome Zampanò.
Fellini has called La Strada “a complete catalogue of my entire mythological world, a dangerous representation of my identity.” What is he saying about his attitude toward women, toward fathers, mothers? Is the affectionate Fellini that we hear about from actors and crew the real Fellini? There are children everywhere. The children delight in the various spectacles, especially Gelsomina’s clowning. Are they the real Fellini? A man of childlike wonder? In all his films, including La Strada, he demonstrates both the weakness and power of women. And he displays his own addiction to women.
Whatever the complexities of his psyche, Fellini amazes me. As I experience his work, he can make a film about a couple of insignificant people, and I feel them as immensely meaningful. I make them party to some of my deepest questions about our human nature. Fellini can evoke from them myths going back to prehistory, to the very road of life. And he does it with love. For all the characters, Gelsomina and the Fool obviously—but even, in the end, the appalling Zampanò. All of them he embraces in a truly Felliniesque hug. Us too.