Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director

By moving beyond the limits of both Italian neorealism and linear modes of storytelling, Federico Fellini’s film La Strada consolidated its director’s international fame.

Summary of Event

When Federico Fellini’s film La Strada opened at the Venice Film Festival Venice Film Festival on September 6, 1954, its director was relatively well known in Italy and Europe, but he had not yet achieved true international status. This situation, however, changed very quickly once La Strada won the festival’s prestigious Grand Prize and became both a critical and a commercial success. Strada, La (Fellini)
[kw]La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director (Sept. 6, 1954)
[kw]Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director, La Strada Solidifies (Sept. 6, 1954)[Fellinis Renown as a Brilliant Director, La Strada Solidifies]
[kw]Director, La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant (Sept. 6, 1954)
Strada, La (Fellini)
[g]Europe;Sept. 6, 1954: La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director[04600]
[g]Italy;Sept. 6, 1954: La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director[04600]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 6, 1954: La Strada Solidifies Fellini’s Renown as a Brilliant Director[04600]
Fellini, Federico
Masina, Giulietta
Quinn, Anthony
Basehart, Richard
Rossellini, Roberto

Federico Fellini.

(Library of Congress)

Fellini had come to film as a screenwriter in 1941, turning out entertainment fare. After the fall of the Fascists in 1943, he met both his future wife, the actor Giulietta Masina, and the accomplished director Roberto Rossellini, who made Fellini assistant director and cowriter for his Roma, città aperta
Rome, Open City (Rossellini) (1945; Rome, Open City). The story of an Italian resistance fighter captured and tortured by Nazis, Rossellini’s film stunned America with its ultrarealistic, semidocumentary view of war-torn Italy. Seen and loved by a worldwide audience, Rome, Open City founded the international reputation of Italian neorealism Italian neorealism and shaped the aesthetics of postwar Italian cinema.

When La Strada opened in Venice, Fellini’s work for Rossellini had already given him a shared Oscar for his contributions to the script of Paisà
Paisan (Rossellini) (1946; Paisan), a film about a woman war refugee stranded among Italian fishermen. Since 1951, Fellini had directed his own films, finishing three comedies, of which the latest, I vitelloni
Vitelloni, I (Fellini) (1953), had received a very warm critical welcome. Fellini was seen as a promising new director, closely linked to neorealism, and critics were keen to follow his career.

La Strada tells the story of a young woman, Gelsomina, played brilliantly by Giulietta Masina, who ultimately sacrifices her life for her unresponsive lover, the brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn), who lives by performing a one-man circus act based on his physical strength. Sold by her mother to accompany Zampano on his travels across Italy’s roads, Gelsomina likes the strongman despite his primitive behavior. She discovers, however, that Zampano’s base nature drives him to promiscuity and violence.

After two affairs, which nearly cost him Gelsomina’s love, Zampano accidentally murders a fellow performer, the Fool (Richard Basehart). The Fool, a melancholy high-wire artist, had taken a brotherly interest in the naïve Gelsomina and had tried to help her love Zampano. After his death, Gelsomina goes mad and leaves Zampano, who years later returns to the village where she died of sorrow. Perhaps realizing what he has lost, and discovering that she really died for him, Zampano breaks down on the nearby beach, a place similar to the seaside cottage from which he once took Gelsomina.

It was not primarily the story that entranced Fellini’s Venetian audience, but the way Cinema;narrative techniques in which he told it. What most intrigued American and British critics was La Strada’s highly episodic structure, or free-form narrative, which rejected the conventional idea that tight plotting determines the narration of a film.

Gelsomina and Zampano’s time together is presented through many individual episodes that are not closely linked together by cause and effect but that instead offer many glimpses of the couple’s complicated relationship. Indicative of this approach is also the fact that many minor characters, such as the members of a lovingly filmed wedding party or the nuns of a Franciscan convent, suddenly appear and disappear without directly influencing the ending, as they would have had to in classical Hollywood cinema. Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions

Similarly startling for critics used to American movies, La Strada included surrealistically composed Cinema;stylistic innovation scenes reminiscent of the empty landscapes of the Italian protosurrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. While Zampano has his first extramarital affair, Gelsomia sits through the night in a deserted village square; suddenly, a riderless horse appears and gallops away.

Italian and French critics also noticed—and did so, with the exception of the Marxists, with enthusiasm—that Fellini’s individualized characters contradicted the emphasis neorealism generally placed on social, rather than individual, struggles. To add to this deviation, Fellini gave La Strada an unmistakably autobiographical touch and moved toward a mystical, personalized view of the human condition, which he presented with great imaginativeness. Not only did Fellini claim that Zampano had his real-life counterpart in a brutal pig-gelder he had met as a child, but he also established a symbolic connection between his three central characters and the elements of sea (Gelsomina), earth (Zampano), and air (Fool). Such symbolism decisively violated the tenets of neorealism.

Despite his success at Venice, and perhaps because of Marxist criticism, which saw La Strada as a betrayal, Fellini’s next film, Il bidone
Swindle, The (Fellini) (1955; The Swindle), offered a bitter, realistic portrayal of two swindlers who, dressed as priests, cheat the poor. A year later, Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria
Nights of Cabiria, The (Fellini) (1957; The Nights of Cabiria) reintroduced his more personal, imaginative vision. Cabiria, played again by Giulietta Masina, is a lively, joyful, but hapless streetwalker who finds spiritual redemption despite her real-life disappointments.

While Fellini was still filming The Nights of Cabiria, La Strada’s delayed opening in America (where it would run for more than three years) on July 16, 1956, suddenly brought him an explosion of international fame. Back to back, Fellini received two Oscars Academy Awards;Best Foreign-language Film[Best Foreign language Film] for Best Foreign-language Film: La Strada won in 1956, and The Nights of Cabiria in 1957. Worldwide, La Strada earned a rough total of fifty awards.

Buoyed by this international success, Fellini felt free to abandon neorealism completely, to move his production into a studio, and to pursue highly personal, tightly controlled projects. His next two films, La Dolce Vita
Dolce Vita, La (Fellini) (1960; the sweet life), and Otto e mezzo
8 ½ (Fellini)[Eight and a half (Fellini)] (1963; 8 ½), the latter another Oscar winner, received worldwide acclaim. Through a remarkable series of outstanding films, Fellini had earned an indisputable reputation as a major international filmmaker.


When La Strada opened in Venice in 1954, Federico Fellini had already left his mark on American culture. As Rossellini’s L’Amore
Ways of Love (Rossellini) (1948; Ways of Love) was about to be released in America, the film was indicted Censorship;United States for its allegedly blasphemous episode “Il miracolo” (“the miracle”). Written by Fellini, the episode tells the story of a stranger, played by Fellini himself, who is mistaken for Saint Joseph by a naïve peasant girl, whom he impregnates and quickly deserts.

After taking up the case, the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;freedom of speech ruled in a landmark 1952 decision that motion pictures were capable of possessing artistic merit, and thus that films, including Fellini’s episode, deserved protection under the First Amendment. The ruling reversed a 1915 decision that had held that films were “business, pure and simple.” By attracting the eye of the censors, Fellini had brought the American film industry a major victory.

Ironically, it was not until April 25, 1956, that American filmgoers would see their first full-length feature by Fellini, who had directed four films by then. Riding on the wave of La Strada’s international acclaim, Fellini’s second film, Lo sceicco bianco
White Sheik, The (Fellini) (1952; The White Sheik), made it to America just three months ahead of its famous successor. A lighthearted comedy, The White Sheik intrigued America with its realistic portrait of middle-class Italian society. La Strada’s American success also ensured that Fellini’s next films (with the exception of the bitter The Swindle) were shown in America with little delay, feeding the flames of his rising fame.

Fellini’s climb to fame was aided by the fortunate fact that his artistic triumph, solidified by La Strada, coincided with a deep crisis in the American film industry. His star rose at the moment when America’s film leaders began to look abroad for inspiration to help combat the threats posed by the nascent medium of television, a declining audience, and the brain-drain caused by the antiCommunist witch hunts of the 1950’s. Many eyes fell on Fellini, who stoked the embers of the neorealist movement of which he had been part and who promised still more innovations.

Since Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, which marked the beginning of Fellini’s serious work, Italian neorealism had left its mark on American film. William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Years of Our Lives, The (Wyler) (1946), which included a disabled World War II veteran among its cast of returning soldiers trying to readjust to civilian life, was as influenced by this new trend toward uncomfortable realism Realism;cinema as was Elia Kazan’s masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954). The Italian neorealists’ influence even touched American theater, which increasingly produced plays of a gritty realism Realism;drama such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).

In 1956, however, neorealism had lost some of its luster. “It sometimes seemed as if the neorealists thought they could make a film only if they put a shabby man in front of the camera,” Fellini noted. Now his La Strada promised reinvigoration. His introduction of special and socially atypical characters and his addition of symbolic and imaginative meaning to the still-observed formal elements of neorealism—such as the use of real locations and a nonprofessional supporting cast—led to profound changes in both Italian and world cinema.

Until his 1970’s drift into the deeply subjective and inaccessible, Fellini remained the admired exemplar for filmmakers trying to find a middle way between artistic and commercial cinema. Indeed, La Strada stands at the beginning of a rare moment in film history, when, for roughly fifteen years, Italian cinema, under the leadership of Fellini and others, produced an impressive body of films which, like La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, combined artistic accomplishment with box-office success.

Fellini’s trademark episodic style together with his successful fusion of neorealism and personal vision influenced a whole group of young American filmmakers. Many, like, Robert Altman Altman, Robert , viewed La Strada as a model; Altman’s interest in nonlinear storytelling led to his surprise hit M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H (Altman)[MASH (Altman)] (1970), which depicts, in loose form, the tribulations of the staff of a field hospital during the Korean War. His highly individualistic style also endeared Fellini to the directors of the French New Wave, who looked to him as a prominent European auteur, or author of his own films.

Fellini’s free-form narrative led to international experimentation with that form and enriched independent American filmmaking during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It even freed the imagination of Hollywood directors. Francis Ford Coppola’s Coppola, Francis Ford
Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now (Coppola) (1979), for example, gains much from the cumulative effect of the individual episodes that occur during the film’s hero’s quest for a renegade soldier.

La Strada was a masterpiece that vitalized not only Italian but also international cinema at a time when Hollywood, the world’s leading film industry, had foundered. In turn, Federico Fellini achieved indisputable international status as one of the century’s greatest directors. In 1993, he was honored with a special Academy Award Academy Awards;special awards for his life’s work. He died of a heart attack in October of the same year. Strada, La (Fellini)

Further Reading

  • Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Rev. ed. New York: Continuum, 1990. A readable and comprehensive account that underlines Fellini’s major position in Italian film. Sees La Strada as Fellini’s decisive break with neorealism and as a major artistic step forward. Sharply outlines Fellini’s development as a director. Illustrations, notes, selected bibliography on Italian cinema, and rental information about distributors of Italian films in America.
  • _______, ed. Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Five excellent individual essays that deal with La Strada. Selected bibliography and Fellini filmography up to 1976. Illustrated.
  • Burke, Frank. Federico Fellini: “Variety Lights” to “La Dolce Vita.” Boston: Twayne, 1984. Covers the films indicated by the title, with a useful, concise chapter on La Strada. Introduction places Fellini in the context of his national cinema. Illustrated, filmography of films covered, and an annotated bibliography.
  • Costello, Donald P. Fellini’s Road. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Begins with a well-illustrated discussion of La Strada; combines character analysis with a debate on Fellini’s themes. Arguing that it contains key concerns of Fellini’s, Costello returns to La Strada throughout. Makes references to other critics, but differs from most in his negative judgment of the film’s ending. Notes.
  • Marcus, Millicent. “Fellini’s La Strada: Transcending Neorealism.” In Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Excellent advanced discussion of La Strada. The best study for those already familiar with the film; discusses its themes, meanings, and context in Italian cinema. Jargon-free; credits Fellini with bringing new vigor to film. Some illustrations, footnotes, bibliography.
  • Murray, Edward. Fellini the Artist. Rev. ed. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Detailed synopses of Fellini’s films up to E la nave va (1983; And the Ship Sails On) are embedded in a biography, critical overview, and conclusion. The discussion of La Strada emphasizes Fellini’s camerawork and his editing and gives many concrete examples of both. Good introduction to the film and its director, but the advanced reader soon longs for more critical discussion. Illustrated; filmography with main credits, brief bibliography.
  • Stubbs, John C. Federico Fellini as Auteur: Seven Aspects of His Films. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. A study of Fellini based on seven features that distinctively mark his films, collectively defining his personal directorial style. Bibliographic references, filmography, and index.

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