Now, as probably fifty years ago, Federico Fellini’s La Strada ("The Road") is a film that creeps up on you. While watching it, especially for the first time, it seems a quite simple, direct, fable-like movie. But it refuses to leave one’s mind afterwards, where it grows in resonance and significance.
Circus life has become a tricky area for contemporary filmmakers. It is hard to transcend the corny clichés of melodrama under the big top, the heavy-handed symbolism of trapeze artists and musclemen, the tired pathos of itinerant performers. Both Wim Wenders (jinxing himself after Wings of Desire  with Faraway, So Close! ) and Sergei Bodorov Jr (Bear’s Kiss, 2002) fell foul of this trap.
Already in 1954, Fellini felt the need to tweak this basic material. The travelling circus he begins with and essentially concentrates on is comprised of only two people: the strong man Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and his assistant, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). Later they become part of a troupe, but even then the environment is minimal and rather tawdry, significant only for introducing a troubling third party into the drama: The Fool (Richard Baseheart).
Fifty years ago, La Strada would not have been referred to as a study of abuse. But that is exactly what it is. Gelsomina is bought, raped and bullied by her master, the brutal and callous Zampano. She tries to resist and flee, but finally recognises that she is bound to him – hopelessly and masochistically, but also because of a certain kind of love. After all, she surmises as she slips into madness and depression, who else is there in the world for Zampano but her?
In a breathtaking narrative twist announcing the final part of the film, Fellini swings the story around to focus on Zampano. We have already seen him weaken in the face of Gelsomina’s sadness, and even forego his sexual demands on her. But eventually he will have to squarely confront the beast within himself – and when he does, La Strada immortalises a particular kind of male pathos that has fed subsequent masterpieces including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).
La Strada is usually seen within cinema histories as the film that marks the end of Italian neo-realism (as practiced by Rossellini, De Sica and others), and the start of a more subjective, fantasy-driven Magic Realism. Certainly, there is no denying the power of Fellini’s subtle lyrical effects here – still a long way from the delirious, baroque excesses of his later films like Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Some of the loveliest moments of La Strada occur when seemingly ordinary, everyday images are quietly invaded and transformed by some element that wanders in – like a lost child or a stray animal.
Yet there is also a connection, clearer today, between Fellini’s breakthrough here and another kind of modern cinema in Italy – the militantly fragmented style of Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which any two shots, gestures or faces rarely flow and harmonise in a conventional way.
The immense, childlike charm of Masina – hers is surely one of the greatest, most iconic performances in all cinema – tends to paper over the strange and disconcerting use that Fellini makes of her in the movie. The constant cutaways to her ever-changing expression often overwhelm whatever scene she is observing, dissolving the action into a succession of pointillistic instants. This robs the film of a certain classical poise, but also opens up a virtually infinite, second-by-second richness that Fellini bequeathed to far-flung successors including Emir Kusturica and Kira Muratova.
In terms of its content, La Strada’s disquieting, pre-feminist offering of an innocent child-woman who suffers so that others (men, mainly) may discover compassion and insight anticipates the career of Lars von Trier (particularly his Golden Heart trilogy spanning Breaking the Waves  and Dancer in the Dark ). But it profits us little to score facile ideological points against Fellini. La Strada is classic for its time, and for all time.
© Adrian Martin November 2004