Italian director Federico Fellini considered “La Strada” (“The Road”) to be his most personal film. The story of two people who stay together without really knowing why came to him first in the form of vague, somber feelings, with the lead female character ultimately being inspired by his wife Giulietta Masina.
Masina ending up playing that character, Gelsomina, in the film, Fellini having refused to consider anyone else. Gelsomina’s mother sells her to Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a traveling strongman. Zampano teaches her to play a drum and dance like a clown as part of his act, always retaining dominance over her, often with extreme brutality despite her eagerness to please. His treatment of her cause Gelsomina’s spirit to gradually break over time, as she questions why she remains with this man.
Quinn gives probably his best performance in “La Strada”, but it’s Masina, without whom the entire movie might not exist, who carries the film. Her heart-breaking performance is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, as she relies more on expressions and actions than words to convey her character’s feelings.
“La Strada” suffered a great many production difficulties. Financing was hard to procure and the budget was low. Much of the cast suffered injuries on set, with Fellini having a nervous breakdown toward the end of filming. After all that, critical reception was lukewarm at best when the film was released; when it won an award at the Venice Film Festival, a fight broke out involving rival director Luchino Visconti’s assistant. But it all paid off as the years passed; “La Strada” is now considered one of the best and most influential films of all time, and it served as a significant turning point in Fellini’s career, as he went on to direct more ground-breaking films like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 ½”. In 1956, “La Strada” became the first movie to win an Oscar in brand new category: Best Foreign Language Film.