Fellini’s La Strada is the first film in his thematic Loneliness Trilogy, along with Il Bidone and Nights of Cabiria. It was also the film that established him as a serious director destined for great things, building on the incredible success he had had with I Vitelloni. La Strada allowed him to win another Silver Lion at Venice (admittedly amidst great controversy). It also cemented the stardom of Fellini’s wife and muse, Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina, the film’s chief protagonist.

The hapless Gelsomina is sold off to a travelling circus performer, the abrasive strongman extraordinaire Zampanó (in a remarkable performance by Anthony Quinn). Quinn’s acting in La Strada is even more remarkable for the fact that he was working double shifts for most of the filming, acting for Fellini in the mornings and then playing the lead in Attila, a shooting schedule nightmare caused by delays in the production process for La Strada. Though Zampanó is physically and emotionally abusive and Gelsomina is a naïve bumpkin who is slow to catch on, the two eventually fall in love. But there are complications, most of them fomented by a rival circus performer called The Fool (Richard Basehart), who despises Zampanó (and is despised by him in return). Like Quinn, Basehart was convinced to play the role after watching I Vitelloni and coming to the realization that Fellini was a singular director.

In telling its story, La Strada takes the viewer on a tour of much of central and northern Italy, shooting on location (a practice that was still mind-blowingly new in the cloistered, studio-dominated Hollywood of the day and made Italian cinema that much more energetic and exciting by contrast). The vistas, the massive set pieces and the parade of settings became the visual language of Fellini, even though it was the quiet human moments in between that really made the film connect with viewers. This is true in much of his subsequent work, where boisterous, ambitiously choreographed scenes sweep characters into emotionally-resonant quiet moments in between all the hubbub. La Strada ends in shattering fashion, a warning for the too-rapidly modernizing Italy that such quick transformations carried real, irreversible social and human consequences.

Not only did La Strada begin Fellini’s unstoppable rise as a top-tier filmmaker—in less than a decade after this film, he would complete Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and , finishing one of the greatest decades by any director in cinema history—it also hints at many of his signature themes and stylistic calling cards. In this way, it is useful to place Fellini’s Loneliness Trilogy next to the other timeless thematic trilogy made by the other Italian auteur/master of the period, namely Michelangelo Antonioni’s Alienation Trilogy. Both men set all three of their films in the rapidly changing Italy of the Marshall Plan-catalyzed, post-war economic boom, both men made sure that all three films in their trilogies were pathos-laden and ultimately tragic and both men centered much of their storytelling on female leads. But Fellini’s Loneliness films—and none more so than La Strada—focus on economic underdogs who never quite make it and are instead crushed by the system.

Antonioni, on the other hand, is more interested in the economically comfortable who rather than being destroyed by their failure to achieve upward social mobility are instead ruined by the vapidity of the modern capitalist order. Fellini shows the costs of failing to make it; Antonioni emphasizes that making it does little to improve the soul. This is the difference between Fellini and Antonioni in a nutshell. Fellini is loud, baroque and spectacular, even when, in his later films, he begins centering the same sorts of ennui-shattered middle class intellectuals that Antonioni so loved to portray. Antonioni was always the director of reticence and interiority, by contrast. Both men portrayed the same ideas, but they did so in wildly contrasting fashion.

La Strada marked a new chapter for both Fellini and Masina and helped to establish both in their long, immensely successful cinematic careers. It is widely—and rightly—considered among the finest films ever made—it is, after all, ranked as the 67th most acclaimed film in the current They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They Top 1000, wedged between Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas—and remains one of the most emotionally-wrenching pieces of screen culture.

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