Federico Fellini began his directing career firmly entrenched within the neorealist school dominated by fellow Italian Robert Rossellini. In fact, Fellini collaborated with the master on his classic in neorealist cinema Open City before creating some of his own classics within the genre. By the end of career, of course, Fellini had long since turned his back on realism to become one of the most dedicated anti-realist filmmakers in history. The turning point in that transformation for Fellini was La Strada.
La Strada has been labeled an example of neo-neorealism because while it is certainly brutally realistic in its presentation, there is buried beneath that veneer a clear enough tone of the macabre and grotesque that would eventually come to characterize the highlights and lowlights of Fellini’s post-realism career.
The translation from Italian to English of La Strada is “the road” and, indeed, La Strada is a road that takes the audience on a journey. Not so much physically, of course, as spiritual. That spiritual road trip takes the circus strong man Zampano from mindless brutality to a realization of his own sublime humanity. Zampano is played to equally sublime perfection by Anthony Quinn. The circus would become a recurring motif in the work of Fellini just as it as it would for his rival European genius from the north, Ingmar Bergman. Important to keep in mind is that both men grew up during a time when access to entertainment was far more severely limited than it is now and the arrival of a carnival in town would be met with the same level of anticipation and widespread focus as the Super Bowl is today. The result being that Fellini found the circus to be a carnival of metaphors as well as entertainment possibilities.
The sentimentality that combines with the images of the grotesque representing the Italian lower classes managed to tick off both the left-wing supporters of stripped-down, unsentimental realism and the far more conservative desire of the Italian government to present their country as one untainted by such undesirable aspects of living. As a result, La Strada faced the potential for censorship on one side and rejection as a betrayal of political principles from the other side. The Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures, on the other hand, rejected the criticisms being level from both sides of the political spectrum and went on to name La Strada the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. Coincidentally enough, Anthony Quinn took a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Lust for Life that very same year.
The story behind the story of making La Strada sounds like a film from Fellini’s later period. Raising money was a constant struggle that was only compounded by delays in casting, injuries on the set, bad weather and, ultimately, a nervous breakdown by Fellini himself near the principal photography. Despite the difficulties during the making of the film and the less than universal acclaim upon its release, La Strada routinely ranks high in most rankings of the greatest films of all time.