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La Strada: The Criterion Collection

In his musings on Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954), director Martin Scorsese repeatedly refers to the film as an example of Italian neorealism. Fellini himself is on the record as saying that he didn't consider La Strada to be neorealism at all. But Robert T. Eberwien describes the postwar Italian movement exemplified by De Sica, Rossellini, and Visconti in his "for dummies" style book A Viewers Guide to Film Theory and Criticism thusly: "Neorealist films are characterized by a pronounced social consciousness on the part of their makers, a concern for the lower classes and their despair and squalor, and a stark realism of technique relying heavily on long takes and depth of field." And that's La Strada all over, so you be the judge. A simple-minded young woman named Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is sold by her impoverished family to an itinerant gypsy strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) for 10,000 lira. Innocent as a child and harboring her own ambitions of performing, Gelsomina goes willingly with the hulking bruiser, traveling as his assistant, indentured servant, and "wife." Cruel as the womanizing Zampano is to her, Gelsomina loves him and, with Chaplinesque innocence, sees joy and goodness in the bleak world through which they travel. When the pair join a small traveling circus, Zampano is repeatedly mocked by the Fool (Richard Basehart), taunting Zampano into a violent rage for which he's jailed. Although he's attracted to Gelsomina, the Fool sees that the pair have a bond that's stronger than his own affections can sever — but even though the Fool leaves so that Gelsomina and Zampano can be together, Zampano's jealousy still leads to tragedy. La Strada is a simple tale that, while less complex than the director's later films, features many of the themes that would be identified with Fellini's work. Critics and film scholars have written reams about the picture's mythic love triangle — Pauline Kael famously identified Zampano as representing the body, with the Fool and Gelsomina as the mind and soul, respectively — and the deeply tragic foundation of the story, with both men engineering their own fates and Gelsomina ultimately proving to be too good for this world. Masina is luminous as Gelsomina, recalling classic silent film actors like Chaplin and Harry Langdon with her expressive face and features, and Quinn (most of whose lines are dubbed on the Italian audio track) is an impressive example of brute strength and oafish cruelty. Beautifully shot with much juxtaposition of earth and sky highlighting the theme of the soul torn between heart and mind, La Strada is a timeless masterwork that belongs on the shelf of any serious cinephile. Criterion's two-disc DVD release offers a beautiful new, digitally restored transfer in crisp, detailed black-and-white. The audio (in Italian with optional English subtitles) is exceptionally clean, lacking any distortion and showcasing Nino Rota's marvelous score. The five-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese is really more of a rumination on his thoughts about the film, and best skipped until later by those who've never seen the movie — the enthusiastic Scorsese gives away far too much of the picture's resolution than is appropriate for an "introduction." There's also an informative commentary track by Peter Bondanella, author of The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Also on board is "Federico Fellini's Autobiography: Clips From His Life," a 56-minute documentary by Paquito del Bosco compiled from interviews with the director gleaned from Italian television archives, an optional dubbed English sound track with Quinn and Basehart providing their own voices, the English-language theatrical trailer, and a booklet with an essay on the film by film scholar Peter Matthews. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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