La Strada (1956): Fellini’s Drama, Starring Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn–First Winner of Best Foreign-Language Oscar

Best Foreign Language Film: 1956 (Year 1)

As directed by Federico Fellini, “La Strada” is a haunting journey film that bears strong spiritual and religious meanings.

“La Strada,” which means “the road,” marks Fellini’s break with the strictures of Italian neo-realism, a movement to which he had contributed as a scenarist and director in the early 1950s.

With this story of a simple-minded peasant girl who is sold to a brutal circus strongman, Fellini created his first allegory.  “La Strada” can be seen as a “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale. Fellini once called the film “the complete catalogue of my entire mythical world.”

To play the lead, Fellini cast Giulietta Masina (his real-life wife) as Gelsomina, the dim-witted but all heart girl who is sold to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a traveling strongman to help him with his circus act.   The two make an odd couple: He, tall and brute, she, small, unassuming, and sensitive.
La strada
La Strada.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

As the announcer of Zampano’s act, Gelsomina’s job is to beat the drum and play the trumpet, but nothing that she does can please him, and he mistreats and abuses her as an assistant-slave and mistress. Things change when they join a circus and meet il Matto, ‘the fool,” (played by Richard Basehart), an artist who treats the girl gently. Matto’s accidental death shocks Gelsomina and leads to emotional breakdown.
Going beyond the rules of neo-realism, the film was viciously attacked by the left-wing critics. One Marxist critic, Guido Aristarco, wrote of “La Strada”: “We have declared, and do declare, that it is wrong; its perspective is wrong.” When the film won the Silver Lion, the second highest honor of the Venice Film Festival, actual fights broke out.
The film is in fact more Christian than Marxist. The peasant girl’s devotion to the brute takes Christ’s admonition to love one’s neighbor to an extreme. Fellini once explained, “Perhaps my spiritual world is, in fact, this instinctive wish to do good for those who know only evil, to make them catch a glimpse of hope, of the chance of a better life, and to find in everyone, even the worst intentioned, a core of goodness.”
Fellini became an unwitting flag-bearer for the Catholic Church, for the Church wholly embraced La Strada. The Church saw the film as a welcome return to spirituality and Christian ideals. The international film community also rejoiced at the film.
The score by Nino Rota, who composed the music of many of Fellini’s pictures, is brilliant and haunting. The circus later became one of the most recognizable Felliniesque motifs.  The acting of the central trio is superb, particularly of Masina, who combines pathos and pantomime (some Italian critics dubbed her “the female Chaplin”), rendering one of the most emotional performances committed on screen.
La Strada was produced by Italy’s two most powerful producers, Carlo Ponti (before he married Sophia Loren) and Dino de Laurentiis, who was then married to Silvana Mangano and wished to cast her (and Burt Lancaster) in the leads.

The film was released theatrically in the U.S. in July 1956, almost two years after it world premiered at the 1954 Venice Film Festival and had played in Europe.

La Strada was also honored with the Best Picture kudo from the New York Film Critics Circle.

In 1994, a re-mastered print was financed by Scorsese, who declared a special affinity with the character of Zampanò, bringing elements of the self-destructive brute into his own films, such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

About Fellini

Fellini was born in 1920 to a farming and trading family in the coastal town of Rimini. As a young man, he wound up in Rome and tried to become a journalist. Fellini began his film career in the Italian neo-realist movement, which started at the end of World War II. He collaborated with Roberto Rossellini on the screenplays for “Open City” (1946) and “Paisan” (1946). Eventually, Fellini was to become the best-known Italian filmmaker outside of his country.

Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina)
Zampano (Anthony Quinn)
Matto (the fool) (Richard Basehart)
Columbiani (Aldo Silvani)
La Vedova (Marcella Rovere)
La Sourina (Livia Venturini)

Directed by Federico Fellini
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti
Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, based on a story by Fellini and Pinelli
Music by Nino Rota
Cinematography Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini
Edited by Leo Catozzo, Lina Caterini

Art direction: Mario Ravasco and E. Cervelli

Production company: Ponti-De Laurentiis Cinematografica

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date September 6, 1954 (Venice Film Festival); September 22, 1954 (Italy)

Running Time: 104 minutes

Oscar Alert
Oscar Awards: 1
Best Foreign Language Oscar
Oscar Nominations: 1
Screenplay (Original): Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli.
Oscar Context:
The other nominees for the foreign-language Oscar were: “The Captain of Kopenick” from the Federal Republic of Germany, “Gervais” from France, “Harp of Burma” from Japan, and Qivitoq” from Denmark.