With the astounding international success of Roma, citta aperta (Open City, 1945) by Roberto Rossellini (1906-77), war-weary Europe and America encountered what was considered to be a new cinematic aesthetic, Italian neorealism. In a very brief space of time (no more than a decade), a number of relatively inexpensive films were exported from Italy and were greeted abroad (although not always within Italy itself) with great critical acclaim. Besides the work of Rossellini (especially Roma, citta aperta and Paisa [Paisan, 1946]), the neorealist moment in cinematic history was advanced by major works such as Sciuscia (Shoe-shine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1948), and Umberto D. (1951) by Vittorio De Sica (1901-74); La terra trema (1948) by Luchino Visconti (1906-76); Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1948) by Giuseppe De Santis (1917-97); Without Pity (Senza pieta, 1948) by Alberto Lattuada (1914- ); and Il cammino della speranza (The Path of Hope, 1950) by Pietro Germi (1914-74). Film critics and directors of the period who praised such works believed that the Italian neorealists were moving cinema away from the Hollywood "dream factory" toward the actual streets and squares of war-torn Europe. In their view, Italian neorealism represented a victory for social realism over fiction and fantasy. Those critics and professionals who supported the production of neorealist films and a fresh view of Italian life in the cinema believed that cinema should stress social context, a sense of historical immediacy, political commitment to progressive social change, and an anti-Fascist ideology. Since the goal of such works was to provide a "true" portrait of daily life in postwar Italy, warts and all, "authentic" locations were preferred to the "artificiality" of the studio; Hollywood or Cinecitta acting styles, generic codes, and cinematic conventions were to be avoided or revised in favor of realism. Nonprofessional actors would be used, whenever possible, combined with a documentary style of cinematography that aimed at a faithful reproduction of social reality. Viewed in retrospect a half century later, Italian neorealist cinema was part of a larger revitalization of Italian culture after the disastrous defeat and fall of Mussolini's regime and the Fascist ideology that had dominated the peninsula from Il Duce's March on Rome in 1922 until 1943. Because many people who worked in the film industry had actually received their technical training and made their first works during the Fascist era, there was an understandable desire to distance Italian cinema from the Fascist regime that had, in fact, done a great deal to build up the industry and to protect it from foreign competition. It is now clear to us today, with perfect hindsight, that Italian neorealism did not really represent a radical break with the Italian cinematic traditions that had been so important from the advent of sound until the end of the war. In fact, the very desire to pursue a documentary realism that was so typical of Italian neorealism was also one of the major currents in the cinema of the Fascist period.1
Ideological considerations, however, made it extremely difficult to say anything positive about the Fascist period and encouraged everyone in the film industry to forget what Mussolini had actually done for Italian cinema. The industry was one of those sectors of Italian society much favored by the dictator, who built Cinecitta's magnificent studios outside Rome, along with the innovative cinema school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, which stood nearby. Mussolini was in general more interested in a cinema of popular entertainment than one designed only to publicize the regime's propaganda (unlike his dictator-colleagues Hitler or Stalin). An especially influential and highly vocal group of Marxist critics were intent, however, on turning the understandable interest in picturing the real Italy in the cinema with a realistic slant into a programmatic prescription for all Italian cinema. Led by Guido Aristarco, the foremost Marxist film historian and the editor of the journal Cinema Nuovo, such individuals attempted to replace the
Catholic tone of prewar Italian culture with that of postwar Marxist ideology: They saw the cinema as a weapon in an ideological battle and would oppose any successful work that ignored what they considered to be the most pressing social or economic concerns of the postwar period or embodied a nonmaterialist view of the world. Of course, a few Italian directors (Visconti and De Santis, in particular) proclaimed themselves to be Marxists, but the often dogmatic demands for "realism" in the cinema as a political force that would agitate for radical social change in Italy came primarily from the intellectuals, not the directors or screenwriters.
It is interesting to note that the most interesting literary works of the postwar, neorealist period - usually identified as literary neorealism - represented quite the opposite of a radical naturalism. The novels that still define Italy's important literary contribution to the immediate postwar culture in this decade - Elio Vittorini's In Sicily (1941); Cesare Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfires (1951); Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945); or Italo Calvino's The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947) - embodied an aesthetic that dealt with social reality in a symbolic or mythical fashion and employed highly subjective and often unreliable narrative voices. In short, they present an clearly antinatural-istic narrative stance quite contrary to the canons of literary realism established by the novel in the late nineteenth century in Europe or to the canons of cinematic neorealism proposed by leftist film critics at the time. In fact, Italian filmmakers and Italian novelists were trying to reach the same goal in different art forms: the creation of a new artistic language that would enable them to deal poetically with important social and political issues. Italo Calvino best expressed this desire when he wrote that neorealists in both film and literature "knew all too well that what counted was the music and not the libretto . . . there were never more dogged formalists than we; and never were lyric poets as effusive as those objective reporters we were supposed to be."2
The film that seems best to embody most or all of the precepts for a realist cinema in the postwar period is De Sica's Ladri di biciclette. Environment shapes and ultimately determines a character's fate in this film. The unemployed worker, Ricci, is a classic neorealist protagonist: Almost all of his pathetic dramatic force is derived from the simple fact that without a bicycle, he will lose his hard-won job of hanging posters on city walls, and without his job, his family will be doomed to a life of deprivation in an Italy that had extensive unemployment and was still mired in the aftereffects of the disastrous war it had just lost. In short, Ricci's material circumstances determine his nature; and since he is typical of the workers of the period before the economic boom thrust Italy into the ranks of major industrial powers, De Sica's unfortunate individual who loses his bicycle could be taken as a social type, a figure typical of an entire class. Presumably, after a viewing of Ladri di bici-clette, neorealist enthusiasts assumed audiences would heed the implicit ideological message that drastic social change needed to take place in Italy. After all, even such a non-Marxist critic as André Bazin claimed that the film was the "only valid Communist film made in the last decade. . . . the thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive."3
Fortunately for the history of the cinema, the great Italian directors of the immediate postwar period paid little attention to the leftist critics and followed their own individual artistic inclinations; but they were as concerned as Fellini would eventually become about prescribing ideological goals for the cinema. Rossellini, universally regarded (Marxists included) as the father of neorealism, became concerned about the unidimensionality of film characters defined almost completely by their environment or social status. In 1954, the same year La strada was released in Italy and was greeted by hostile attacks from the Left, Rossellini declared: "one is drawn to new themes, interests change, and with them directions. There is no point in tarrying among the ruins of the past. We are all too often mesmerized by a particular ambience, the atmosphere of a particular time. But life changes, the war is over, what was destroyed has been rebuilt. The drama of the reconstruction had to be told."4 In the same year, Rossellini declared that not only was he not the father of neorealism but that "everybody has his own personal realism" and that his brand of neorealism "is nothing but a moral stance that can be expressed in four words: love of one's neighbor.."5 In fact, beginning as early as 1949 and continuing through 1954, Rossellini moved toward a cinema that explored dimensions of the human condition unrelated to strictly social or political problems - in particular, human loneliness, alienation, and the search for meaningful emotional relationships between men and women. These themes would become dominant in a series of films he shot with and for Ingrid Bergman: Stromboli, terra di dio (Stromboli, Land of God, 1949); Europa '51
(The Greatest Love, 1952); Viaggio in Italia (Voyage in Italy, 1953); Giovanna d'Arco al rogo (Joan of Arc at the Stake, 19 54); and La paura (Fear, 1954). It is not surprising that since Rossellini was Fellini's mentor, Fellini would share Rossellini's essentially Catholic and moral view of neorealism and that they would both be attacked by critics with a Marxist and materialist view of the world.
Another significant director to emerge in the first decade of the postwar period is Michelangelo Antonioni, whose ideology was far more to the Left than either Fellini's or Rossellini's. Nevertheless, like Rossellini, Antonioni begins to concentrate not merely upon a portrait of society from a realist perspective but, instead, upon the emotional or psychological crises of extremely complex and even neurotic protagonists. Like Rossellini, he focuses primarily upon female protagonists in a number of remarkable works: Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950); I vinti (The Vanquished, 1952); Le amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955); and Ilgrido (The Cry, 1957). It is interesting that both Rossellini and Antonioni achieve this shift of focus away from naturalism by concentrating upon a female protagonist, something Fellini also achieves with La strada. These early Antonioni films move away from strictly social or economic problems toward an analysis of individual solitude and alienation, although Antonioni was personally more willing than Rossellini to define such a condition as a product of a specific kind of sociopolitical system, one linked to capitalism. In a famous remark referring to De Sica's neorealist classic, Ladri di biciclette, Anto-nioni advocated the need to move Italian cinema away from the kind of socialist realism6 Marxist critics were advocating toward a cinema of the individual:
perhaps it was no longer so important, as I said before, to examine the relationship between the individual and his environment, as it was to examine the individual himself, to look inside the individual and see, after all he had been through (the war, the immediate postwar situation, all the events that were currently taking place and which were of sufficient gravity to leave their mark upon society and the individual) - out of all this, to see what remained inside the individual, to see, I won't say the transformation of our psychological and emotional attitudes, but at least the symptoms of such restlessness and such behavior which began to outline the changes and transitions that later came about in our psychology, our feelings, and perhaps even our morality.7
Antonioni himself noted that French critics of the period (the same critics who were to praise the films made by both Rossellini and Fellini in the 1950s) had defined his own move away from socially determined protagonists as "a kind of internal neorealism,"8 a formula that could easily be applied to La strada.
Given this historical and ideological context of La strada, it is perhaps easier to understand why the film provoked such controversy. When Fellini turned from writing scripts for neorealist directors to making his own films in the 1950s, his works immediately began to turn away from realism. His first three feature films and an episode in a fourth film that appeared before La strada moved away from the idea of a film character as a social type. In Luci del varieta, Lo sceicco bianco, I vitelloni, and Un'agenzia matrimoniale, Fellini concentrated not upon his protagonists' social environment but, instead, upon the inevitable clash between a character's social role and his subconscious feelings, aspirations, ideals, and instincts. In particular, Fellini was most interested in the clash of dreams and the sordid reality that normally destroyed his characters' illusions.
With La strada, however, there is an almost complete break from the neorealist protagonist as explained and defined by his or her environment. In fact, far from representing social types, the protagonists of this work are totally atypical creatures, owing more to the world of adolescent dreams or to the personal mythical world of Fellini himself than to any attempt on the director's part to represent a simple or "realistic" reflection of the world around him. In La strada, Fellini has evolved toward a cinema of self-consciously poetic images and personal symbols or myths. Nevertheless, the surface appearances of the film seem to be familiar neorealist territory and even obey the textbook recipe for neorealist style: nonprofessional actors playing at least minor roles; real locations in the small, provincial towns of Italy; a large number of poor people down on their luck. The opening scenes of the film show Zampano, a brutish circus strongman played brilliantly by Anthony Quinn, who literally buys the services of a young girl named Gelsomina from her tearful mother for the measly sum of ten thousand lire. Gelsomina's chores include keeping the gypsylike motorcycle caravan tidy, cooking, learning to perform as Zampano's assistant in his itinerant act, and servicing him sexually whenever he wishes (in fact,
she is raped by her purchaser). A neorealist director might well have focused upon the horrible social conditions that persuaded a mother to sell not only Gelsomina into this kind of life but another older sister (Rosa) as well, as we learn from the first several sequences of the film. Fellini, however, has something entirely different in mind, and, as Milli-cent Marcus points out, the fact that La strada "indeed meets the conditions for a thesis film on poverty and social injustice"9 is simply irrelevant. Fellini does not condone poverty and injustice; he merely wishes to speak of something else and to do so not with the rhetoric of ideology but with the lyricism of poetry.
Perhaps his departure from neorealist practice in rejecting the idea of film character as social type is the most important divergence from
The Fool (Richard Basehart) teaches Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) how to play the trombone. [Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive]
neorealist practice; but equally important is the fact that the plot and visuals of La strada reject easy classification as a realistic story of social exploitation. More than a story, La strada is a fable about symbolic figures, and its plot structure reflects this origin in the fable or fairy tale. More than social types or dramatic characters, Gelsomina, Zampano, and the strange acrobat they encounter named Il Matto or the Fool (played brilliantly by another foreign actor, Richard Basehart) are the opposite of social types that represent Italian reality; nor are they really traditional cinematic characters whose lives develop in significant psychological ways during the course of the film. Rather, they seem to be modern versions of stock characters from the Italian commedia dell'arte, an art form with origins in Roman comedy and a long history of representation that has survived from the Renaissance through the
present-day theatrical antics of Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo. The fact that they are itinerant performers and almost gypsies naturally underlines their traditional links to this Italian comic style. Like the various types from the commedia dell'arte, Gelsomina, Zampano, and the Fool are usually dressed in circuslike costumes that identify them to the spectator as stock types. Moreover, they retain their characteristic dress throughout the film, which not only marks them as comic types but also sets them clearly apart from the other, "normal" people in the film.
Fellini agreed with both Rossellini and Antonioni that Italian cinema needed to pass beyond a dogmatic, Marxist approach to social reality, dealing poetically with other equally compelling personal or emotional problems. Communication of information, especially ideo-
logically tinted information, was never Fellini's goal. As he once stated, "I don't want to demonstrate anything: I want to show it."10 In response to Marxist materialism, Fellini underlined a quite different inspiration in the films leading up to La dolce vita, Christ's command to his followers to love one's neighbor: "it seems to me that ... yes, all my films turn upon this idea. There is an effort to show a world without love, characters full of selfishness, people exploiting one another, and, in the midst of it all, there is always - and especially in the films with Giulietta - a little creature who wants to give love and who lives for love."11 Rather than viewing the world from the perspective of class struggle or class conflict, La strada embodies a profoundly Christian emphasis upon the individual and the loneliness of the human condition. Like Antonioni, who made reference to the protagonist of De Sica's Ladri di biciclette in defining neorealism, Fellini once declared: "Zampano and Gelsomina are not exceptions, as people reproach me for creating. There are more Zampanos in the world than bicycle thieves, and the story of a man who discovers his neighbor is just as important and as real as the story of a strike. What separates us [Fellini and his Marxist critics] is no doubt a materialist or spiritualist vision of the world."12
Fellini's interest in a cinema of poetry that would transcend the aesthetic categories of realism advocated by proponents of neorealist films is evident in a number of La strada's most striking stylistic qualities: the ambiguous presentation of its three protagonists (Zampano, Gelsomina, and the Fool); in its symbolic visual imagery; in its lyrical musical theme; and in its fundamentally fablelike plot that relies upon the Christian idea of "conversion" to draw the work to a conclusion. Let us briefly analyze these complementary aspects of the work that make it so remarkable a poetic vision of the world.
Fellini's protagonists are circus performers and stock comic types who suggest a multilayered array of symbolic possibilities that their socioeconomic status cannot exhaust. Giulietta Masina's unforgettable performance as Gelsomina owes a great deal to the expressive, clownlike features of the actress herself, who has frequently (and quite correctly) been described as a female Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's Little Tramp, as well as the cartoon character Happy Hooligan, are clear visual antecedents to Gelsomina.13 In speaking of the genesis of La stra-da, Fellini has said that when he began thinking about the film, he first had only "a confused feeling of the film, a suspended note that aroused in me an undefined sense of melancholy, a sense of guilt as pervasive as a shadow ... this feeling insistently suggested the journey of two creatures who remain together because of fate ... the characters appeared spontaneously, dragging others behind them."14 Fellini conceived of Gelsomina as a clown, and her conception immediately brought to his mind her opposite, "a massive and dark shadow, Zam-pano."15 Fellini and his scriptwriter, Tullio Pinelli, had both independently thought about a film that would be described in Hollywood generic terms as a "road movie," a picaresque story of acrobats and circus performers or gypsies who wander through Italy in much the same way that Fellini had admired in Rossellini's neorealist classic, Pai-san, a film portraying a picaresque journey from Sicily to the Po River Valley during World War II. Fellini also was able to incorporate memories of his childhood in the tiny village of Gambettola, where he would visit his grandmother and observe the strange characters in the countryside:
In Gambettola, there was a little boy, the son of farmers, who used to tell us that when the ox bellowed in the stable, he would see a huge piece of red lasagna come out of the wall, a sort of very long carpet floating in the air that would cross his head under his left eye and vanish, little by little, in the sun's reflection. This little boy used to say that once he even saw two large spheres of dark silver come off the bell-tower while the clock struck two, and they passed through his head. He was a strange child, and Gelsomina had to be a bit like that.16
Gelsomina is immediately described by her mother as "a bit strange" (shot 9) and "not like the other girls."17 In fact, Gelsomina is a bit dim-witted. As Fellini puts it, she is "both a little crazy and a little saintly" and is a "ruffled, funny, clumsy, and very tender clown."18 Yet, her diminished capacities in the rational world are compensated by a special capacity for communication with nature, children, and even inanimate objects: She can sense the oncoming approach of rain (shot 60); she seems at home by the seashore; in tune with nature, in one beautifully symbolic shot (133), she walks by a solitary tree trunk and imitates with her arms the angle of its only branch, and then immediately afterward she listens enraptured to the sound of the telegraph wires that only she is capable of hearing. When she confronts Osvaldo, a radically deformed child who is kept hidden in one of the farmhouse attics she visits on her wanderings, only Gelsomina understands the nature of his suffering and loneliness. In short, Gelsomina possesses what might be called a Franciscan simplicity or a childish purity of spirit that more than makes up for her lack of normal intellectual skills, and this makes her the perfect protagonist for Fellini's poetic ruminations on spiritual poverty.
Fellini emphasizes the religious overtones of Gelsomina on several occasions. She is photographed (shot 236), during a religious procession, against a wall upon which a poster reads "Immaculate Madonna." Her function in the film is to become the means through which her brutish owner, Zampano, comes to learn how to feel the slightest bit of emotion, the defining feature for Fellini of a human being. There are obvious Christian and specifically Catholic overtones in Gelsomi-na's role in the film; but it is important to emphasize that even when Fellini uses suggestive ideas or imagery from Catholic tradition, he completely deinstitutionalizes these notions from the actual Catholic Church. Gelsomina may be a clown version of the Virgin Mary in her benevolent influence upon Zampano, but she performs this task without reference to the institution of the church. If she is a saint, she is a completely secular one. Her secular nature is underlined when she and Zampano visit a convent (shots 518-73), where Gelsomina engages a young nun in a conversation about her vocation. The nun points out that nuns change convents every two years so that they will not become attached to "the things of this world" and "run the risk of forgetting the most important thing of all, which is God" and then remarks: "We both travel around. You follow your husband and I follow mine" (shot 539). Gelsomina rejects staying at the convent and feels her place is with her brute of a husband.
Earlier in an important and extremely famous sequence of the film, Gelsomina has another religiously charged conversation with the Fool, who relates to Gelsomina the Parable of the Pebble (shots 462-9). The Fool convinces Gelsomina that she must have some purpose because even a pebble has some meaning in the universe, even though it may be mysterious: "I don't know what purpose this pebble serves, but it must serve some purpose. Because if it is useless, than everything is useless" (shot 466). As Millicent Marcus perceptively points out, the Fool's parable moves from the concrete stone to the stars in the heav ens above, and its teaching underlines the fact that the human mind, even in a person of diminished capacities like Gelsomina, "need not be earthbound or imprisoned by immediate or material things."19
It seems clear that Gelsomina can be interpreted only as a symbolic figure, a stock comic character or clown upon which Fellini appends his poetic themes and with whom his poetic images are associated. Like most poetic images, Gelsomina is an ambiguous figure, capable of sustaining many layers of interpretation. The same may be said for the two male protagonists, Zampano and the Fool. Each is associated with a very different kind of character - the first is a brute, an animal, whose association with Gelsomina seems highly improbable but ultimately results in some change in his sensibility; the second is a kind of malevolent angel who delivers the message of the film to Gelsomina (that contained in his famous Parable of the Pebble) but who then concludes his sermon by declaring that "I don't need anybody" (shot 473). The two figures could not be more different: Zampano performs what can only be described as an imbecilic strongman act, breaking a chain with his chest muscles, while the Fool is a skillful acrobat, musician, and joke-ster. Nevertheless, at the close of the film, Zampano repeats the declaration of the Fool: "I don't need ... I don't need anybody!" (shot 740). The images associated with these two male protagonists are as ambiguous and as poetic as those we link to Gelsomina: They demand explication and interpretation, but they are susceptible of no simple examination based upon content.
Nino Rota's music became internationally famous with La strada, and the theme song of the film sold enormous quantities of records for its time. Originally, the musical theme of the film was to have been taken from the Italian composer Archelangelo Corelli (1673-1713), and as the initial shooting script makes clear, the music eventually identified as Gelsomina's song was to be introduced by means of an offscreen radio Gelsomina would overhear while standing under the eaves of a house while it rained, as she and Zampano waited for their motorcycle to be repaired.20 However, in the film, Fellini and Rota decided to use original music by Rota (inspired by Corelli) and to introduce the theme song with the Fool (shot 375), who first plays it on a tiny violin that he employs in his circus act. Since the Fool convinces Gelsomina of her vocation by his Parable of the Pebble, Fellini obviously thought it was also natural to have him introduce her to what will become her musical leitmotif. After Gelsomina comes to realize that even her miserable life has a purpose, what might be properly labeled the Fool's musical theme becomes Gelsomina's, and she plays it on her trumpet until her death. At the film's conclusion, an anonymous woman hanging laundry hums the music (shots 721-35), and it is because of this that Zampano discovers the woman he had abandoned years earlier is now dead. At the conclusion of the film, the tune can be heard on the sound track of the final powerful shot of La strada. In a sense, the music has now become associated with Zampano, since perhaps (and only perhaps) he has finally learned the lesson Gelsomina's life reprepresent-ed - that love can touch the hardest hearts, even his.
Besides the evocative music of Nino Rota, Fellini's lyrical images in La strada all underline its poetic narration of the film's major themes. As every great poet knows, the difficult nature of lyric poetry involves discovering concrete images or metaphors for abstract ideas or private emotions - what T. S. Eliot called the "objective correlative." Nowhere is Fellini's cinematic poetry more evident than in this kind of evocative imagery. If one of the distinguishing marks of a film auteur is a recognizable visual style, then Fellini certainly qualifies as one of the cinema's greatest auteurs on the basis of his imagery alone, and the ensemble of metaphors he employs in many of his works are all evident in La strada. In fact, the kinds of act typical of the circus and the variety hall are fixtures of imagery in Fellini's early cinema.21 The very fact that Gelsomina, Zampano, and the Fool appear normally as stock comme-dia dell'arte characters, often obscuring their identities with makeup and clown accessories, makes the expressiveness of their great performances even more remarkable. In spite of the fact that they seem to be comic types, their facial expressions and body language - particularly in the case of Giulietta Masina - display an emotional range that nonprofessional actors of the neorealist sort could rarely achieve. By using such figures in his film, Fellini can poetically suggest that people normally wear masks and often disguise their real emotions without belaboring the point.
Other Fellini images besides that of the circus and the clown that will recur in many other important films are present in La strada. Perhaps the most important lyrical image in the film is that suggested by the title of the film, "the road," for it is the procession. Fellini never tires of seeing humanity pass by his camera in this kind of journey that is itself something of a show. In La strada, one of the most moving mo ments takes place between two processions, linked by the presence of Gelsomina. The first and most magic of the processions occurs immediately after Gelsomina becomes disgusted with Zampano's emotional aridity and leaves him. As Gelsomina walks into the frame in a long shot of a deserted country road, she sits by a grassy ridge as a processional theme begins offscreen (shot 220). A medium shot of her playing with insects is followed by a long shot of three musicians marching single file toward Gelsomina (shot 222). This magical appearance and its musical theme underscore poetically Fellini's conviction that beginnings happen as if by magic and that Gelsomina's road always has a possible destination. The next shot (223) shows Gelsomina plucking up her courage and following the procession, and only a few shots later (starting with an extra-long shot 227), the musicians have been transformed into a much larger religious procession entering a small town. A series of shots (228-46) bring Gelsomina into the town and introduce her to the Fool, with his angel's wings perched high above the procession in the main square of the town. By a magical and serendipitous encounter with mysteriously appearing musicians, who are transformed into a religious procession, Gelsomina, photographed against a poster reading "Immaculate Madonna," is brought to meet her "angel," whose function, as in Scripture, is to deliver to her an important message of transcendental importance. This message is the famous Parable of the Pebble that the Fool recounts to Gelsomina in one of the film's most important sequences (shots 462-9). Peter Harcourt quite rightly believes that "the whole of Fellini" can be found in this sequence and that it may be called the "characteristic Fellini miracle," where a sense of wonder is reaffirmed in the face of despair and heartache.22 Another image filled with symbolic resonance in La strada is the piazza or square, usually teeming with people in Italian towns. Fellini, however, prefers the square empty at night, preferably after a happy celebration, when his characters are forced to confront their loneliness and solitude. We see Gelsomina and Zampano on several occasions in this type of setting where the environment reflects their interior states of mind. Perhaps the most celebrated single shot (122) of the entire film is that which contains the appearance of a phantom horse23 Gelsomina encounters after Zampano has betrayed her with a floozy and left her to wait for him in the city. An extreme long shot captures Gelsomina sitting dejectedly on the curb as a clopping of hooves signals the approach of a riderless horse, which appears as if by magic and without
The deserted road, on which the characters of La strada travel, represents one of the most expressive poetic images of the film. [Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive]
any rational explanation - exactly like the musicians discussed earlier. This horse first enters the film by a sound-over and then actually moves through the frame in the foreground, casting a shadow over Gelsomina, who looks up and watches it proceed down a lonely road until the shot ends by a dissolve. To describe the shot sounds banal or ridiculous, but the effect on the viewer is one of profound melancholy and loneliness. Again, Fellini succeeds in evoking a poetic and lyric image that presents a surrealistic objective correlative for an important emotion, without superfluous dialogue.
Fellini's search for a poetic cinema is best expressed in such famous sequences as that of the two processions or the single famous shot of the phantom horse, but his ability to compress poetic meaning into visual images is evident in even the most conventional of shots devoid of complex dialogue or dramatic action that are normally used by other directors merely to indicate the passage of space or time. For example, in three extreme long traveling shots (shots 579-81), each shown from the perspective of Zampano's moving caravan and each dissolving into the next, Fellini shoots a herd of horses grazing, a small lake from a mountain road, and finally a peaceful countryside. These three shots follow the convent sequence in which Gelsomina has learned from a young nun that their vocations are similar, and the views of nature in the three shots reflect her tranquillity and her belief that her mission in life is worthwhile. In a similar sequence of five traveling shots, three extreme long shots and two long shots that also progress through dissolves (shots 634-8), Fellini shows us a series of shots of nature marked by an entirely different kind of landscape, that of winter and trees without leaves. This series of shots follows the death of the Fool at Zampa-no's hands and depicts a threatening, hostile nature. The shots in both sequences are subjective shots from Gelsomina's point of view, and without a single word of dialogue, they speak volumes about her two very different states of mind.
The most poetic quality of La strada consists in its fablelike plot, which is constructed upon archetypal narrative elements that seem as old as time. We journey with Gelsomina and Zampano from one seashore (where he buys her) to another (where he cries after realizing that he has lost her forever). The literal journey on "the road" of the title is, of course, less important than the imaginative trip both spectators and characters have taken along the way. It is a quest and a picaresque adventure that serves as a metaphor for self-discovery. All fables require interpretation, and La strada offers all sorts of possibilities -ranging from a variation of the Beauty and the Beast legend (the Beast, Zampano, being transformed by Beauty, Gelsomina) to a Christian parable of redemption, or even a more personal account of the director's remorse over his own relationship to his wife Giulietta Masina. There is no sure answer to the question of what La strada means. More accurately, the film cannot easily be reduced to a single perspective. Like great poetry, this film can support equally well a number of interpretations; and perhaps part of Fellini's message is that a complicated, academic exegesis serves little purpose unless the spectator feels the emotional impact of the film's visuals.
Certainly the Christian notion of conversion and redemption (even if employed by Fellini merely as a metaphor that arises naturally out of Catholic culture) suggested by Zampano's anguish and tears on the beach at the conclusion of the film would anger Fellini's leftist critics. When the jury of the Venice Film Festival awarded a Silver Lion to Fellini for La strada and ignored Luchino Visconti's Senso, an actual brawl developed. The Marxist Guido Aristarco rejected the film on ideological grounds alone: "We don't say, nor have we ever said, that La strada is a badly directed and acted film. We have declared, and do declare, that it is wrong; its perspective is wrong."24
Peter Harcourt is the critic who has perhaps best described the indescribable - the moments of epiphany in films such as La strada that seem to defy critical thought, yet cry out for attention because of their great emotional and lyrical power. Harcourt believes that while there is nothing in Fellini's films that can be properly called "thought," there is "nevertheless evidence of an intelligence of a totally different kind ... the presence of a mind that responds to life itself on a subliminal level, that is acutely conscious of the natural metaphors to be found in the trappings of day-to-day life and which struggles to find a structure both flexible and persuasive enough to contain them within his films."25 The "intelligence of a totally different kind" is precisely what Fellini's cinema is all about, for it is the intelligence of the artist or the poet, not the philosopher or the ideologue. Such a poetic sensitivity is evident in all of Fellini's important films, but few of them can match La strada's perennial popularity and its appeal to audiences of all ages and nationalities.
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