Impoverished loyalty to family old and new, La Strada depends on the unwavering, raw heart of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and how attached she is to the ideas of stardom. She is not a happy woman, but presents herself as one. There is true anguish underneath her positive outlook and dependability as a human being. Mired by death from the opening moments, Gelsomina is likeable not just because she is a decent person, but because she is sacrificing her own happiness for those that treat her like dirt. That leading draw is more than enough to capture the emotions La Strada grapples with, and Federico Fellini captures it with a knowing, simplistic professionalism.
Here, he does not offer swooshing shots or enlightened opposites inspired by the terms of Levi Strauss, as he does often in 8 ½. Instead, his attention is turned to how his characters can form his narrative. Gelsomina’s optimism is ill-placed. She believes in herself, a noble sacrifice here and a weeping family there, and away she goes to join the circus. It does seem as though it is her only choice, and that self-sacrifice is captured as inconsequential and part of life for her. Masina captures that beautifully. She boards the truck to a new and unknowing life with relative optimism, and it is not until the tarp of the truck falls in front of her that she realises the horror of parting her loved ones to aid them as best she can from far away. But the simplicity of her being is why she does not realise, rather than wondering whether or not this new venture will harm her. She never gives it a thought.
Gelsomina meets masculinity in all its dangerous forms. Anthony Quinn portrays that traditional man of the house attitude with spectacular, rewarding scenes. He breaks a chain from his chest, bolstering to the crowd that he could split a vein or spit blood from his mouth if done incorrectly. But those are moments that merely bolster the character as the hothead he turns into. He clashes with the innocence portrayed by Masina, and La Strada soon turns into a film that destroys the innocence of its leading character. Her deceptions are cruel and harsh, and where Fellini sometimes struggles is in making us so sure of her happiness. Surely even the simple-minded Gelsomina can understand something is not quite right? Who knows? Fellini at least has strong intentions and interesting articulation of his story at hand. Much of it springs to life relatively easily from there.
Perhaps the biggest draw, then, for La Strada, is Masina. Her ability to convince us that her character’s free spirit is indestructible is the crux of the film. Gelsomina accidentally steals the show from under Zampanò, not because she is the better circus act, but because her irrational choices and inability to perform strike an endearing note with her audience. The gathering crowd’s experience for this travelling circus act is much the same for those watching Masina bring it to life, who steals the show from Quinn at every turn, despite the simplicity and delicate nature of her performance depending so naturally on her Quinn’s aggressive characteristics. It all comes together with a fine touch indeed, one that Fellini presents as, primarily, a contrast between two travelling performers.