Having heard about this film forever, it was one of my choices to finally see [on the big screen] during the salute to Janus Films during the New York Film Festival. I had previously seen Nights of Cabiria, which has definitely become a sentimental favorite, and was eager to contribute to my filmic knowledge with this one.
Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, plays Gelsomina, a woman apparently close to poverty when we meet her. Anthony Quinn is Zampano, this strongman who goes around to towns and performs his show for the few bucks he can gather. His previous wife, Gelsomina’s sister Rosa, died—how is never explained—and he’s come back to complain to Gelsomina’s mother, as though she sold him a defective product. So she offers to replace it—with Gelsomina. He gives the mother a large sum of money, she offers her daughter, and there you go.
Now if you’ve ever seen a Giulietta Masina film, you know that she has an incredibly expressive face. She’s quite close to what you would expect from a mime [but in a good way], although she does speak. If you can’t stomach extremely overt sentimentality she might make you roll your eyes, but I would suggest you just roll with it and realize that this is what it is. We’ll come back to the sentimental aspect, but suffice to say that Masina’s schtick is in full effect here, as she registers her hopes that her new husband will comes to love and appreciate her, and her determination to be a good wife for him. This is sorely tested early on when Zampano picks up a woman right in front of her, and tells his wife to wait for him on a streetcorner. Come morning, no Zampano, and Gelsomina must track him down where he lies passed out drunk in an empty field. He later teaches her some things she can do to help him with his act, whipping her when she can’t get it right. One can see that her not getting a line right is an unspoken entreaty for him to reach out to her with patience and to help her, but his only response is further brutishness.
After a certain period she runs away, and we see her amidst a crown gathered to watch a tightrope act overhead. Later she shares a glance with the acrobat, Played by Richard Basehart, called only “the fool” in the film. Soon Zampano drives into town and forces her to come along with him.
They join up with a circus, where the fool is also performing. He provokes Zampano by creating a distraction during his show, and taunting him later, which finally drives Zampano to come after him with a knife. They are both gathered up and sent to jail, but the fool gets out sooner because he did not have a weapon. The rest of the circus has refused to work with Zampano again, but they offer Gelsomina a place with them if she chooses to go [and you, in the audience, are like “Go! Go! Go!”]. She and the fool have a talk about it, and he tells her that every element of the world has a place and a purpose, and picks up a pebble as an example. We can see from the way Gelsomina stares at the pebble [and keeps it with her from then on] that these words have had a very deep effect on her, and that she sees in this manner of looking at the pebble a view of her own place and purpose in the world. By the morning she has resolved to wait for Zampano and commit herself to being the best wife she can be for him.
They go off on the road [“La Strada,” by the way, means “The Road”], stopping to perform at a wedding, then come to a convent, where they stay the night. One of the sisters takes a shine to Gelsomina and speaks to her kindly and with respect. In the morning, Zampano pries a silver heart out of the wall, which Gelsomina strongly objects to, as the sisters have been so kind, but he is unmoved. The sister who liked Gelsomina so much offers her the opportunity to stay, but Gelsomina has committed herself to Zampano, and she reluctantly refuses.
There are some spoilers coming now, and if you plan on watching the film, do yourself a big favor and don’t read them.
SPOILERS > > >
Back on the road, the couple come across the fool! He is changing a tire. Zampano confronts him, and accidentally ends up killing him. He throws him under a bridge and rolls the truck on top of him, making it look like a roadside accident. Gelsomina is stricken speechless, and after a while it becomes clear that she’s lost her mind! [She has a particular repeated stifled gasp that is really quite distressing.] Zampano goes on with her longer than one would expect him to, but finally just leaves her by the side of the road!
We next see Zampano in another town, at a time we discover is several years later. He is walking along when he suddenly hears the familiar tune that Gelsomina used to sing. It is being sung by a woman hanging wash. He asks her where she learned the song, and she says that a crazy woman wandered into town a few years previously, and that they fed and kept her. She says she died a while ago. Some time later we see Zampano be thrown out of a bar, drunk, and wander over to a beach, where he collapses, a destroyed man.
So it seems that the fool’s talk with Gelsomina about the pebble resonated very strongly with her, and gave her a new way of looking at her place in the world. When the fool is killed, her ability to sustain that worldview is negated, as it was his existence that symbolized that perspective, and she sinks into madness. Zampano, who it seems had, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, grown to depend on Gelsomina’s goodness and belief in him, also depends on Gelsomina’s existence to fend off his own feelings of being a blot on the world, which is shattered by her demise. Throughout the film he never connects closely to anyone except Gelsomina, such as that connection was, and when he finds out that the one connection he forged ended up destroying that person, his sense of internal rot crushes in upon himself.
< < < SPOILERS END
For the first hour and a half, I was thinking “Okay, this is a little aimless, I guess I liked Nights of Cabiria better,” but once it was over I came to feel that this film has a little more depth of psychological interaction, and more of a literary idea and structure, and ultimately I think I slightly prefer this film. The more I have thought about it during the week since I’ve seen it, it has only grown in my estimation and the depth of my feeling for it. Which, when it works out, is the main reason to haul yourself out to see these classics when they come around: because they’re really good!
Yes, this is a beautiful and very moving film.