Blu-ray Review: La Strada

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Federico Fellini | CAST: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Marcella Rovena, Livia Venturini
RELEASE DATE: 11/2/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack, featuring the voices of Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart; audio commentary from 2003 by author Peter Bondanella; introduction from 2003 by Martin Scorsese; 2004 documentary Giulietta Masina: The Power of a Smile; 2004 television documentary “Federico Fellini’s Autobiography”
SPECS: NR | 108 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.37:1 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall

With every year that passes, this classic becomes an even greater treasure. Fellini’s work had yet to become “Fellini-esque” when he made La Strada in 1954, yet the seeds are here in a fable for adults about love, the tarnishing of innocence and eternal regret.

The Fifties found Fellini formulating his style, which reached full flourish with La Dolce Vita (1960). La Strada remains a touchstone for both those who love the full-blown Fellini-esque films and those who refused to take the journey to his later blend of memory, reality and fantasy. It is scripted in a fairytale fashion, with a heroine who is innocence personified — Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina); an ogre — the strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn); and the tender clown who shows our heroine a better life is possible — “The Fool” (Richard Basehart).

The film has been a mainstay of the Criterion Collection since its earliest days on LaserDisc and was one of the “Essential Arthouse” titles that were packaged together several years ago. Rewatching it, one is still struck by the iconic nature of the three lead performances and the fact that Fellini created a seemingly timeless tale that just happens to be set in mid-Fifties Italy.

The big moments stay in the memory, but it’s the rediscovery of small interludes, including a short but moving scene where Gelsomina is brought in to entertain a sick boy, that makes it an emotional powerhouse. The scripting by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, emphasizes both the tragic yet endlessly endearing quality of Gelsomina and the trap that her mother put her into, selling her to Zampano.

Certain lines of dialogue — like Gelsomina telling the strongman “If I don’t stay with you, who will?” — have a beautifully haunting aspect. And the score by Fellini’s composer of choice, the magnificent Nino Rota, is both joyous and deeply melancholy.

Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954)

Some of the supplements included here have traveled from the earlier deluxe 2010 two-disc DVD Criterion edition of the film. Martin Scorsese is, as always, quite eloquent about the film’s appeal in an on-camera intro. He discusses the fact that Fellini used real locations in which to situate his fable. Thus, the characters dwell in a “grotesque and hostile world, still reeling from the war.”

The title, meaning “the road,” is “a metaphor for life” as Gelsomina and Zampano entertain at various celebrations (including a wedding) while Zampano’s brutal side is certain to ruin whatever joys Gelsomina discovers. Scorsese also ties the very un-Neorealistic La Strada in with the films of Roberto Rossellini, through the message of redemption and the compassionate teachings of St. Francis. The single best moment? The always-forthright Mr. S trailing off, with “The circus… the circus.. that’s what it is. He loved the circus. He loved the circus. I, I, I… don’t like the circus. I have problems with it. But [laughs] he really loved the circus, and he’s the only one I can watch, the only films I can watch, the circus seen through his eyes.”

The television documentary “Federico Fellini’s Autobiography” is fashioned out of vintage TV interviews with the filmmaker. Many of the clips are eye-openers, including one where Ingmar Bergman and Fellini rhapsodize about each other’s work, as they talk about an anthology film they were going to work on, which never came about. The standout, though, is an interview snippet that offers perhaps the single best description of what Fellini aimed to do, from the mouth of the man himself. He describes his evocative method of filmmaking as “perhaps the attempt to recapture, to hear once more an utterance that’s been interrupted, repeated each time with a weaker and weaker voice, until I could no longer hear it. This feeling of grasping at the frayed ends of a broken string…. Straining to hear, with my hands and heart, something that’s been nearly forgotten.”

The new inclusion here is an excellent counterpoint to the Fellini doc, the 2004 documentary Giulietta Masina: The Power of a Smile. In this assemblage of clips we see interviews with Masina, her receiving the Oscar for Best Actress (for Nights of Cabiria) from presenter Fred Astaire and even one TV clip from 1960 of her singing and doing a Charleston-like dance.

In one interview she is asked to discuss the parts she played for Fellini and she dissects Gelsomina quite eloquently: “Gelsomina is a little rat, a little animal, an extraordinary small creature… [she] was born to carry a burden that is too heavy for her, to drag her feet and never fully open her eyes….”

Since Masina was Fellini’s wife, the interviewers dig deeply. One asks her about the rocky marriage depicted in 8½. (Says she, “All in all, I’m okay with it.”) Another asks her about the fact that she and Fellini never had children in their marriage (which lasted from 1943 until their deaths in the early 1990s). She answers politely: “We felt the need to love each other more.”

Most revealing is a clip showing her accepting the David di Donatello acting prize for Juliet of the Spirits. She has ample time to talk at the podium, so she decided to review her films with Fellini and declare her personal distance from her character in Juliet. She wryly notes: “I don’t fully agree with the wife depicted in Juliet. I don’t know if all wives tell their husbands, ‘Yes, darling, go off with your lover and I’ll wait for you….’ That’s not my way of seeing things.”

And then she jokes that she wants to make her own film about marriage, to be called “Federico of the Spirits.”

Buy or Rent La Strada

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”