Film Forum Is Reopening With a Classic: Fellini’s ‘La Strada’

“La Strada,” the 1954 movie that made Federico Fellini’s international reputation and won the first competitive Oscar for best foreign film, is exemplary pop modernism — an existential parable with affinities to “Waiting for Godot,” featuring an appealingly sad clown, haunted by a forlorn musical phrase and set in the timeless landscape of windswept beaches, tattered carnivals and deserted piazzas that Fellini made his own.

It’s also a crowd pleaser, appropriately chosen as one of the movies that, newly restored, will reopen the Film Forum on Friday.

Fellini is out to break your heart from the get-go, as the wide-eyed waif Gelsomina (the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina) is sold by her impoverished mother to the itinerant carnival strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) as his stooge, servant and concubine.

Gelsomina’s childlike innocence is amplified by her master’s brutish behavior. While he is largely stuck with repeating a single, unimaginative stunt — ironically, it’s bursting a chain that encircles his chest — simple-minded Gelsomina delights in fantasy and spontaneous performance. In one scene, she entertains the guests and children at an outdoor wedding with an impromptu dance; in another she enchants the sisters in a convent that gives her shelter (and Zampano considers robbing).

Masina’s performance is nearly silent; unmistakably Chaplinesque with her derby, oversized coat and makeshift cane, she also evokes Stan Laurel, Harpo Marx and, as a little woodenhead, Pinocchio too. Fellini is said to have received scores of offers to make further vehicles for the character, including one from Walt Disney. E.T. may be considered among her descendants.

The New York Times hailed “La Strada” (The Road) as “a tribute to the Italian neo-realistic school of filmmaking,” even though, for all its desolate locations, it is far more allegorical than naturalistic. Indeed, Fellini’s metaphoric intentions are made apparent with the introduction of the itinerant tightrope walker called the Fool (Richard Basehart) who performs wearing a pair of cardboard angel wings.

Despite his annoyingly dubbed giggle, the Fool fascinates Gelsomina. When all three characters are engaged by a threadbare circus, the Fool mocks Zampano and encourages Gelsomina to join his act. That she cannot do, bound to Zampano by a mystical force that can only be termed “love.” Instead, the Fool leaves her with the poignant Nino Rota melody that becomes her theme.

Like that refrain, “La Strada” belongs to Masina. Still, before the movie ends it becomes apparent that Quinn (who took over Marlon Brando’s role in the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a precursor of roughneck masculinity) has given a career performance. Indeed, the last five minutes, a coda set five years after the two part ways, are his.

“La Strada” is often sentimental and not always convincing but the ending packs a wallop. I was told the story, as a small child, by my mother who had just seen and perhaps been devastated by the movie. Although I did not fully understand it, the final scene — Zampano wading into the sea — has stayed with me.

La Strada

April 2-8 at Film Forum, Manhattan. 212-727-8110; filmforum.org. Also streaming on the Criterion Channel, Kanopy and other platforms.

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