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La Strada  

One of the acknowledged classics of cinema, Fredrico Fellini's 1954 film La Strada stars Anthony Quinn, and Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina. Fellini became famous with this picture, later moving on to more complex, extravagant and self-indulgent films like 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Juliet of the Spirits, but this is by far his most simple film, possibly his best.

The story involves Zampano (Quinn), a narrow, macho guy who is a travelling entertainer. His gimmick consists of snapping a metal chain wrapped around him with his chest muscles. He tries to make the spectacle more astounding than it really deserves to by warning sensitive viewers to look away in case there's blood, and also at one point by telling an anecdote about someone who burst his optic nerves attempting the trick.

The film begins with Zampano agreeing to take a simple-minded girl, Gelsomina (Masina) as an assistant. She has simple dreams of being, as she puts it, an "artist". The relationship between the two is very rocky. Zampano exhibits a dictatorial approach to training her, going so far as to swat her with a stick whenever she plays her notes wrong on the trumpet. Another distressing moment occurs when the two go out into a bar, and Zampano flirts with a busty red-headed woman. He takes the woman with him, leaving Gelsomina on the sidewalk for the entire evening. The next morning, she is still waiting for him.

Later on, they meet a character known only as The Fool, a tightrope performer. The Fool exhibits a more light-hearted approach to life; the opposite to Zampano. For one, he is far gentler to Gelsomina. Also, The Fool makes fun of Zampano's dumb tricks, including distracting him during a performance. It is during this time when a viewer truly understands the eventual tragedy of Zampano. Clearly, he's insanely jealous of the attention The Fool is giving Gelsomina, never once by his words, but rather his violent actions. The fallout from his final outburst is when the viewer gets a glimpse of his true loneliness.

The movie is simple yet perceptive in its portrayal of a pathetic character and the woman who forces him to have at least a scant realization of his own tragic nature. Only as the movie ends does Zampano get in touch with any emotions other than the brutish sort. Gelsomina, while child-like, is able to reveal an openness and a patience for life in general, and specifically for this seemingly unworthy individual. However, many viewers might rightfully accuse Gelsomina of allowing herself to be a victim, and Fellini of portraying her as an exceptional woman for accepting his nasty flaws. This is even further complicated when The Fool reassures her that all people, including her, have a purpose in the world. So apparently that means Gelsomina's purpose is to care for Zampano. Wouldn't a reasonable woman just tell Zampano to piss off and then go back home and find a better purpose in life?

La Strada's simplicity and the peculiarity of its characters allows the film a believable glimpse of human nature, which is something the best artists clearly strive to do. Fellini has given ample evidence that he is one of those artists.

David Macdonald

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