Directed by Federico Fellini
La Strada follows the depressing journey of a young woman across Italy, dealing with the abuse of a circus performer until she finally gets the courage to leave him. Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) might as well be a puppy dog. She is filled with a childlike innocence, but it can only last so long in the presence of the man who is more of a master than a husband, Zampano (Anthony Quinn).
Zampano, after his first wife dies, returns to the family from which she came to pick up another daughter as a sort of replacement wife. The family’s mother cries for her Gelsomina but explains that if she leaves it will ease her burden with one less mouth to feed. Gelsomina, though, doesn’t seem to register the emotion of her departure. She announces that she’ll travel the world and get to play music as she skips towards Zampano’s wagon. Zampano just stands by silently, unmoved by the scene.
While he travels the country, Zampano performs an act in which he wraps a chain around his chest and breaks it apart simply by flexing his chest. Gelsomina’s role is to carry the hat around to collect money, and, later, to play the drums and the trumpet to help spice up the act. She becomes just as important to the performance as Zampano himself.
Still, however, Zampano seems to completely cast her aside. In one scene he picks up another woman while having dinner with Gelsomina, and he forces her to wait outside the restaurant all night. He never does return, and it’s up to Gelsomina to find him. Fed up with his poor treatment, she decides to leave and comes across another performer simply called the Fool (Richard Basehart). The Fool commands a large audience, and he tightropes between buildings. It’s an act that is greater than Zampano’s small performance in every way.
Then Gelsomina sees the Fool’s assistant, a lovely woman who seems happy with her job and happy with the Fool. It’s the same relationship as Gelsomina and Zampano, but it’s a much better dynamic than our two main characters. Gelsomina, though seemingly dran to the Fool, once again returns to Zampano, perhaps thinking their own relationship can work as well as the Fool’s and his assistant.
Everything remains as miserable as before, but soon enough Zampano and Gelsomina join a circus where the Fool works. Zampano and the Fool hate each other, apparently brought on by a previous encounter, and suddenly Gelsomina is stuck in the middle. When the Fool trains her to be a part of his act (treating her with as much disrespect as Zampano), Zampano flips out and starts a fight. This leads to Zampano’s arrest and it gets both men kicked out of the circus.
Completely lost, Gelsomina wonders where to go, and she considers (wisely) leaving Zampano. The Fool gives her a long speech about how every pebble has a purpose, and this gives her plenty of hope, but it leads to her returning to Zampano. Gelsomina is both extremely naive and stubbornly determined.
Zampano, though, continues to treat her horribly. One night together, Gelsomina confesses that she considered suicide at one point after she had met Zampano and observed the depths of his disdain for her. She’s unwanted by anyone, and the only man who showed her any kindness (the Fool) also treated her like dirt as well. The Fool only looks good in comparison to Zampano, but it doesn’t much matter because when they cross paths again, they get in a fight, and Zampano kills the Fool.
Gelsomina remains despondent about the Fool’s death, and Zampano gets fed up and abandons her one night. The end of the film follows Zampano’s downward spiral. He is lonely, drunk and desperate.
Years later he hears a woman singing the same tune Gelsomina occasionally played on the trumpet. When asked about the tune, the woman explains that she picked it up from the woman their father took in to live with them. She explains that the woman, Gelsomina, was feverish and not quite right in the head. Eventually she died.
Zampano wanders down to the beach and breaks down in tears.
La Strada is about as sad as a film can be. Gelsomina is painfully naive and childlike, and the world has no place and no time for her. To make matters worse, she doesn’t know when to pull back and protect herself, instead choosing to constantly re-enter the world which, in this case, is Zampano’s life. She believed the lie fed to her about traveling the world and playing music with this performer who takes her away from home, and she remains under his spell until she dies.
Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) is a bit of a remake of this story. In that film, Sean Penn plays a musician who aspires to be Django Reinhardt, and he meets a mute woman played by Samantha Morton who admires him the same way he admires Reinhardt. But Penn’s character never makes time for Morton’s character, and in the end they go their separate ways. Penn expresses as much remorse and grief as does Zampano here, but he finds Morton, only now she is married. Sweet and Lowdown is much more comic than La Strada, choosing to play Penn’s grief as comedy.
La Strada, on one hand, feels as though it starts off well and only gets worse, but it never starts off positively in the first place. It’s just that Gelsomina is optimistic that we are given a similar feeling, but we can clearly see how foolish she is. The film offers us hope, in the form of the Fool and his inspiring pebble speech, but he is killed off soon after. Even before that, Gelsomina chooses to return to Zampano. Her judgment is poor from the start, and it never improves. She’s a character who can’t learn to breathe our air.
The film paints a picture of a world in which the only important thing is to survive. There isn’t much humanity in the film. When Zampano is arrested, the other circus members offer Gelsomina a place to stay, and they wonder out loud how she will get her next meal. Gelsomina is sold off by her mother because, as she says, she needs to lessen the burden at home in order to survive. There is no plague destroying the country, but the feeling is that this world can’t support itself.
Gelsomina, despite her naivete, is the lone beacon of wholesome goodness, and this world kills her. You have to be like Zampano to survive, it seems, but then even he finally breaks by the end of the film. Is there anyone who can make it in this world? There doesn’t seem to be.