OPENING - BY THE SEA
As La Strada opens we see Gelsomina gathering wood by the sea. Her siblings come to tell her that their sister, Rosa, is dead. Rosa had been sold to Zampano, who has come to give the news to the family. There is so much happening in these first five minutes, and Fellini reveals a great deal through the loss of Rosa. We know that Gelsomina is a bit different than the other girls, that her father left the family who is very poor, to the point that they don’t eat every day. We can also see they are fragile and their poverty has made them this way. Zampano contrasts this by being sturdy and realistic. We can see even by the way he dresses that he is from another place. One far away from the sea. He brings with him 10,000 lira in order to buy Gelsomina into his service. We are able to understand the extreme sacrifices that people were making in order to survive, in that they would sell their children in order to have money. Fellini is showing us that in their poverty, this family has put a price on a life. Whether right or wrong we are immediately thrust into a moral predicament. The stage has thematically been set, and we know what this film is about within minutes. What’s quite beautiful about this opening is Gelsomina’s reaction to all of it. We see both the pain in losing her sister and leaving home, as well as her great joy at the chance to have a life outside of this place. To leave means she can help her family and have a life.
HERE HE IS: ZAMPANO!
Fellini shows us Zampano on the road as he breaks a chain with his chest. It shows us two things, his strength and how he should be feared and also the potential that he could do that for Gelsomina. We see Fellini show in the next scene that he wants us to identify Zampano with strength and fear as he whips Gelsomina with a stick in order to get her to play his introduction tune on the drum. Fellini is also a director that uses the actor’s performance, their behavior to reveal character and add layers to the story. We see this vividly with Giulietta Massina as Gelsomina. We are able to see the multitude of feeling within her; from the loss of her family, to the excitement of this new adventure, as well as her fear. By revealing all of this we connect with her in a deeper way so, when she faces hardships or joy in what’s to come we are more easily able to experience this with her.
Gelsomina has taken to her new role as an entertainer as we see her perform before a crowd with great pleasure. She and Zampano then go to eat and she asks him questions about where he’s from and he avoids every one of them. This is her attempt to get to know the man who she spends night and day with, but his focus is on the wine, the girl with the red hair and ‘his’ money. We see that Gelsomina believes their relationship is a two way street, but when he leaves her alone in the street to take the red head away in his vehicle it’s another form of abuse perpetrated on this innocent young girl. Zampano doesn’t return and when morning comes there are women and children that give Gelsomina food, but she won’t eat. She only wants to return to Zampano, and she does. She finds him asleep and still half drunk, but still travels with him. She asks if this is how he treated Rosa. He only responds by telling her she needs to keep her mouth shut if she wants to stay with him.
Zampano and Gelsomina perform for a wedding party. What is very important to notice are Fellini’s subtle touches here. We see the bridal party throwing bread at each other and then in a wider shot we see children and Gelsomina picking up the bread off the ground. It lasts mere seconds, but it shows us the poverty that these people are living in; nothing can go to waste when you are hungry. We also see Gelsomina come to meet a disabled boy, certainly a representation of how we treat those with disabilities in that we isolate them from our world. It’s a compliment to the way Zampano is treating Gelsomina in that he is isolating from connecting with her in a meaningful way, only using her to accomplish what he needs in his show. Once the duo eats they head off to the barn to sleep, but when Zampano again doesn’t respond to Gelsomina’s request to know more about him and her sister’s relationship she decides to leave.
A BETTER SHOW
Gelsomina leaves Zampano and finds her way into the city where she sees a high wire act above the plaza. After the crowd clears and she is left alone in the plaza, Zampano appears, demanding that she get in. He slaps her and throws her in the caravan. The two men in the plaza who were drinking with her do nothing. Gelsomina wakes up the next morning to find that Zampano has given their services to the circus. They will work for tips only. It’s here at the circus that we see the The Fool, the same man who performed the high wire act the night before. And, with his introduction we finally have someone to challenge Zampano. The Fool represents the mind in this story, and we see during the first interaction between he and Zampano that The Fool uses his words to outwit the strong man. We also see The Fool provoke Zampano’s brutality by interrupting the strong man’s act. Zampano in a fit of rage searches for The Fool, and Fellini shows us that the animal has been unleashed in Zampano as he prowls around outside the main tent of the circus seeking to destroy the man. It becomes clear here that if The Fool represents the mind, that Zampano represents the body and our animalistic nature. Zampano’s rage towards The Fool comes to a head after Gelsomina rehearses an act with him and Zampano is enraged, chasing the man down with a knife after The Fool douses him with a bucket of water. The police come and arrest Zampano, leaving Gelsomina alone.
Fellini sets up a conversation between The Fool and Gelsomina. She is sitting in the back of Zampano’s caravan, and The Fool opens the door for her as if to release her from her prison. He is able to tell her that she has a purpose, just like everything on Earth, she was put here for a reason. This lights a fire in her that we haven’t seen before, but when she tells him the circus will only take her, not he nor Zampano we can see The Fool deflate and hide his disappointment. Fellini then has The Fool place Gelsomina back in the caravan, as if putting her back in Zampano’s prison. He drives the strong man’s caravan to the jail to drop Gelsomina off to be with him. And when he cannot convince her to stay with him, he gives her his necklace as a souvenir and she waits for Zampano to get out of jail.
ON THE ROAD
The unlikely pair continue their journey, and when they stop at the sea Zampano continues his brutality towards Gelsomina by shutting down everything kind thing that she has to say. This is the first time she calls him an animal. We see that Zampano is a man that believes he has done good for Gelsomina by taking her away from her home because she was in such poverty and that is all he owes her. That she, in return owes him much more for giving her a life to see the world. We next see that Zampano and Gelsomina have picked up a nun, and are able to stay in the convent they drop her off at. Zampano again tells the lie that Gelsomina is his wife.
While they eat dinner, Zampano tells Gelsomina to play the trumpet for the sister. When she does it’s beautiful, and we see a close up of Zampano for the first time reacting to this beauty. He quickly moves past this feeling for her by demanding she do the dishes and then begins to chop wood for the sisters. Fellini is showing us that the soul and beauty of Gelsomina is having an effect on the strong man, and he is doing everything he can to fight it off. The sister takes Gelsomina away and explains to her that they are very much alike in that they do not stay in the same place for too long (the sisters move convents so as not to get too attached to earthly possessions), and they follow their husbands (the nuns relationship being with God). Fellini shows us this has deep importance to Gelsomina as she, in the next scene, asks Zampano why he keeps her. She wants to find out if he does indeed like her. And, again he gives her no answer. But, this time she bears her heart to him. Telling him she would marry him. To which he turns his back on her and refuses to speak.
In the middle of the night Gelsomina awakens to find Zampano trying to steal silver off the wall of the convent. He slaps her when she refuses to help him. Fellini shoots her trembling in fear as the lightning cracks, lighting her up as she trembles from the abuse of Zampano. The rain outside mirrors the girl’s tears. One of the sisters the next morning asks if Gelsomina wants to stay. She refuses and continues on the road with him. When passing through the countryside they see a car broken down on the road, and it’s The Fool. Zampano attacks him, giving him a beating, but when he lands a punch he sends the base of the man’s skull into a point on his car. Zampano begins to walk away as The Fool tells him he broke his watch. Fellini uses this to symbolize that Zampano has taken his life, and with that The Fool draws his last breathes before their eyes. Zampano dumps The Fools body in the creek and pushes his car off the bridge that crosses it. It’s important to know that Zampano has killed the mind by killing The Fool. And, Fellini makes this clear to us when his death comes from a puncture wound to his head. This is the first thing that Zampano, who represents the body kills.
NO MORE DRUM
After killing The Fool, Fellini shows us landscapes of the snow covered ground. It has become much colder, and we see this also in the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina. She doesn’t play the drum for his breaking the chain act as all she can say is, “The Fool is hurt.” And, again Fellini takes us to the road and the barren landscapes that surround the pair. They are now on the run, running away from the truth of their actions. For the first time we hear Zampano speak of he and Gelsomina as “us.” Saying that no one saw us, or suspects us or is after us. It is only when he knows he has done something horrible that he even claims her. She has seen the horrific result of his brutality and her reaction to it and him is a mirror that he now stares into. And, he sees the truth of his actions. He knows his sin, and we see it weighing upon him like never before. Ten days pass before Gelsomina begins to speak to Zampano. When she takes over making soup Zampano begins, for the first time, to express how he feels. That he didn’t mean to kill The Fool, and his fear of going to prison for the rest of his life. We see the reciprocation of his refusal to speak to her throughout the film from Gelsomina. He tries to get through to her, telling her he will take her home, but she stays. This portion of the film is incredibly poignant because Gelsomina represents the soul, and Zampano the body. Fellini is showing us that the sins of the flesh have great affect upon the soul, and though the flesh does it’s best to forget what has happened, the soul will never forget the truth. So, when Zampano leaves Gelsomina behind, he is leaving his soul to die.
BY THE SEA
Five years later we find Zampano is with another circus. As he walks around the town they are playing in he hears the song Gelsomina played on her trumpet. A woman hanging sheets is singing it. She tells him that a woman from the circus had come through their town years ago, and when she got sick her family took her in. She would play that tune on the trumpet, and the woman never forgot it, it stuck in her mind. She tells Zampano that the girl took sick, and one morning she just didn’t wake up. Zampano performs his chain breaking before the crowd as if he could care less, and ends up in a fight at a bar after getting drunk. He makes his way to the sea, and this parallels the opening scene in which we found Gelsomina so alive during the day and full of hope, and now we find this man alone in the darkness with no one to save him as he makes futile attempts to grab onto the sand as it slips through his hands.