When Gelsomina, a naïve young woman, is purchased from her impoverished mother by brutish circus strongman Zampanò to be his wife and partner, she loyally endures her husband's coldness and abuse as they travel the Italian countryside performing together. Soon Zampanò must deal with his jealousy and conflicted feelings about Gelsomina when she finds a kindred spirit in Il Matto, the carefree circus fool, and contemplates leaving Zampanò.
La Strada (1954) film notes by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
Water represents life and death, hardship and fortune. La Strada (1954) begins at the beach. A young woman, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), carries kindling on her back. She wears a cape. The wind blows it open as she walks alone with the sound of the waves. Running to meet her, Gelsomina’s little sisters call out, “Gelsomina! Mother says to come home right away. There’s a man here. He came on a big motorcycle. He says Rosa is dead.” She follows her sisters, running towards her fate. Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) doesn’t look at her. Smoking a cigarette, he leans against their house. He looks as poor as they are. His jacket and hat are rough, his face lined from scowling and squinting. He doesn’t need to do any convincing. Gelsomina’s mother’s speech sounds prepared, “Gelsomina, you remember Zampanò who took Rosa away with him? My poor daughter. I’ll never even see where they buried her. She’s dead, poor thing. She was so beautiful, so good. She could do everything.” One daughter is the same as the next. Not because this unnamed mother is unfeeling but because she has to make do without. She says to Zampanò, “See how much my daughter Gelsomina looks like her? We’re so poor. I told you, she’s not like Rosa. But she’s a good girl, poor thing. She’ll do what she’s told. She just came out a little strange. But if she eats everyday, maybe she’ll get better.” Her faith in Zampanò is medieval. He has not returned one daughter to her safe and sound, and yet she sends off another with him. She turns to Gelsomina, “You want to go with Zampanò and take Rosa’s place? He’ll teach you a trade. You’ll earn some money. And one less mouth to feed around here wouldn’t be bad. Zampanò’s a good man. He’ll treat you well. You’ll travel the world. You’ll sing and dance. And look what he gave me: 10,000 lire.” A sister stands behind Gelsomina while her mother talks. Not far away is the sea. There is no way out for any of them but through Zampanò. He is the road. Gelsomina’s mother isn’t asking if she wants to go; she is already holding Zampanò’s money. Gelsomina’s mother is promising her daughter a future that neither of them has a hand in or any power. Zampanò listens, unfazed as Gelsomina’s mother talks.
Zampanò doesn't show Gelsomina the world; he shows her the outskirts of Italy. He doesn’t teach her a trade; he beats one into her. He doesn’t pay her; he lets her eat the food she cooks for him. Gelsomina is like a circus bear though her ankle chain is invisible. She cares for him because she has no one to care for. She is loyal to him because that is her character. Like Rosa, Gelsomina will have a breaking point from which she will not return. The road is not linear. It is circular. We go forward, and we go back to where we came from. Gelsomina takes Rosa’s place on the road, and she ends with Rosa’s fate.
Zampanò repeats his act in every town. He sleeps with women and drinks too much wine. He is all instinct and no thought. Gelsomina wants to unshackle herself emotionally and spiritually. Chains are part of Zampano's act. He breaks them across his chest by flexing his muscles and pulling the chain apart. What chains him to his nature he can’t unhook. He is hooked on his physical strength. He doesn’t question; he acts. Gelsomina tells him, “You have to think.” She means that he should think of her as valuable not only for the coins her clowning brings in. Once she runs away from Zampanò only to be found by him. He won’t give her up. The road they travel never arrives in any center but circumvents, keeping them on the edge. They are outsiders, foragers with no place to bathe or wash their clothes. The dust and dirt of the road accumulates. Zampano and Gelsomina carry the road with them. People who come to their shows are ordinary. Willing to laugh, they share their food with them and pay them for their comedy. The townspeople are also outsiders. They are poor and have no road to travel. They have children, they own taverns, they survive their husbands' deaths. They are happy to be entertained. They sympathize and offer help. They don’t pity.
Zampanò and Gelsomina join a circus. Gelsomina wants Zampanò to teach her how to play the horn. She begins to get her footing. When she goes in front of an audience she feels that all the world's a stage. She asks Zampanò about Rosa. Her ghost haunts the road. Life is about change. Zampanò resists and is taunted by a tightrope walker, the Fool (Richard Basehart) who makes fun of his one act. Zampanò is chained to the past. Connections with women are shallow and brief. Gelsomina picks up the Fool’s melody, a melancholy tune. The Fool plays it on his violin. Gelsomina masters it on her horn. As she plays it everywhere, that tune becomes how she will be remembered. The Fool picks on Zampanò in a way Gelsomina never could. Zampanò is brutal but not inhuman.
The Fool tells Gelsomina that Zampanò must like her or he would have left her. She tries again and again to show him her value. His vision is only as far as the next town. Gelsomina is the most adaptable to the road. She changes with each experience. She learns what she can, she makes friends, she easily loves. Zampanò is rigid. He has his act. He is unable to listen to anyone or share anything of himself. This is his mistake. There is an end to every road. In La Strada the road ends at the water, the place where the road began. Gelsomina is no longer with Zampanò. He has lost her like he lost Rosa. No other human beside him, he is alone with the sound of the waves licking at the shore. He has eroded his life. He clutches at the sand.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.
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