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Quinn and Masina shine in Fellini's compelling La Strada

La Strada

Directed by Federico Fellini.

Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli.

Starring Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, and Richard Basehart.

LSC Friday.

By Stephen Brophy

Astrange vehicle, sort of a cross between a motorcycle and a covered wagon, lumbers down the road through a wintry landscape. It carries a circus strongman and a strange young woman from town to town, from performance to performance. Zampanò, the strongman, is barely more than a brute, and Gelsomina, his companion, seems at first glance to be mildly retarded. From such simple elements, Federico Fellini fashioned his first great masterpiece, La Strada (The Road).

Fellini was one of the great humanists of world cinema, in a league with Renoir, Truffaut, and Kurosawa. The universe of his early films is peopled by scavengers and parasites, grifters and drifters, humans on the edge who will do what it takes to survive. But while his neutral director's eye does not blink at their shortcomings, he does not attempt to judge them, analyze them, or use them to advance a political argument. He looks on them with compassion, frequently with sorrow, and with joy when, against all odds, they find redemption. And of course, watching them, we do too.

Gelsomina is the star of this show, and she is played to perfection by Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife. Masina would probably be more widely known as one of the best film actors of all time if she had not worked so closely with her husband. Her face could register any emotion, switching from comedy to tragedy in a blink, and her timing was flawless. She wasn't called the "Chaplin of Italy" for nothing.

Anthony Quinn portrays Zampanò, a character unlike the hammy post- "Zorba the Greek" Quinn. This one is lean and mean, closed in upon himself, not giving away anything. Zampanò basically buys Gelsomina from her poor family for a sausage and some bread and wine because he needs a cook, performing accompanist, and repository for his sexual tension. He communicates mostly in grunts and glares, and ignores Gelsomina whenever he doesn't need something from her. In their travels Gelsomina and Zampanò briefly join a circus, and there meet the third main character, a clown played by Richard Basehart. When first seen he is walking a tightrope across the piazza of a small town, playing a tiny violin and wearing angel wings. This character teaches Gelsomina the haunting melody that will come to represent her, and who helps her discover her purpose in life.

La Strada proceeds from incident to incident; it is not a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It starts on one beach and ends on another, and though the story seems bleak, you are left with a sense of hopefulness that seems impossible to explain. Many of Fellini's early films end in this way, with a feeling of redemption for its protagonists as mysterious as it is unearned. That's one of the reasons so many people love him.

La Strada is this week's LSC Classic, and will be screened tonight at 7:30 p.m. in 10-250. Also on the LSC line-up this weekend, and playing in 26-100, are Interview With The Vampire tonight, Tampopo, the first "Japanese noodle" western, tomorrow, and Hope and Glory on Sunday. Hope and Glory is John Boorman's personal reminiscence of growing up in Britain during World War II, and is definitely worth watching. Don't forget, $3 will buy you a ticket to La Strada and one other of this weekend's movies.