The films of Federico Fellini are gateways into the more impenetrable corners of European cinema. And La Strada, his fourth feature film, was the first to set him on the path from Italian neorealism to his own personal style—one that can only be described as “Felliniesque.” The movie is crushingly cruel in spots, but thanks to Nino Rota’s buoyant score and the remarkable human faces cinematographer Otello Martelli captures, La Strada beckons viewers in, never to let them go again.

La Strada (Italian for “The Road”) follows Gelsomina (Fellini’s wife and muse, Giulietta Masina) as she is sold to Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a drunken sideshow strongman, for 10,000 lire and a couple of pounds of cheese and salami. Gelsomina takes the transaction in stride—she is a living incarnation of Chaplin’s The Tramp—eagerly learning Zampanò’s trade. And she excels. Zampanò falls in love with her but refuses to acknowledge it. She may be slow-witted, but he is emotionally repressed and becomes violently jealous of those she meets on their travels—particularly the gregarious wire-walker (Richard Basehart).

According to Mark Frankel’s account of the production, La Strada’s producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti wanted Silvana Mangano (Laurentiis’s wife) in the role of Gelsomina, but Fellini would not budge. The whole movie was inspired and anchored by Masina’s unbreakable face. Despite the crushing realities and horrors of the world, her childish grin and eyes full of wonder are the stuff of pure hope. If Fellini is the way into Italian cinema, Masina is the way into Fellini’s heart.

La Strada became the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1956 and went on to inspire artists far and wide, including Bob Dylan, who claims it as a primary influence on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Krzysztof Zanussi have both listed it as one of the greatest movies ever made. Martin Scorsese has cribbed from it his entire career, modeling Mean Streets’ Johnny Boy and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta after Zampanò’s destructive brute and rightly calling La Strada, “The cornerstone of all [Fellini’s] work.” 

Fellini began his career as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant director and one-time actor (L’amore, 1948) while Rossellini was helping to create Italian neorealism. But the kind of neorealism Fellini adopted was not the harshness of post-war existence—as depicted in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.—but of a Franciscan variety. Fellini’s neorealism includes a deep and forgiving love for all of God’s creatures, and that love is on display in La Strada’s final scene with Zampanò’s break down on the beach while the waves lap away at the shore. The dream has run out of steam, and the only thing left to confront are the heavens.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

La Strada (1954)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli, with dialogue from Pinelli and collaboration with Ennio Flaiano
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani
Paramount, Not rated, Running time 108 minutes, Opened Sept. 6, 1954

A version of the above review first appeared on TCM’s Movie Morlock’s website. May it never be forgotten.