La Strada (1954), directed by Federico Fellini (and co-written by Fellini, Pinelli and Flaiano), captures the windy, grey postwar Italy from the perspective of two travelling entertainers. Sold by her mother to a brutish strongman Zampanó (Anthony Quinn), Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) delights in the idea of learning to sing and dance. She is quickly disillusioned, since Zampanó treats her like a slave—barking out orders or gruffly telling her to shut up—yet Gelsomina is tied to him for better or worse and despite her hard life, retains a chaplinesque innocence. Their encounter with Il Matto, a tightrope artist (Richard Basehart) paves the way for tragedy, as he stirs up an old rage in Zampanó, while Gelsomina is dazed with admiration.
Federico Fellini is one of the greats of Italian cinema, and La Strada remains one of his most personal films, with autobiographical influences and elements which recur in his later films. Before his career as a director, Fellini worked with a circus troupe, and continued in the field of comedy as a cartoonist and radio sketch writer. He became more involved with filmmaking as a screenwriter when he met, and began collaborating with Roberto Rosselini on the production of Roma, città aperta.
La Strada is also closely associated with the Italian neorealism; while displaying the gritty side of Italy and the aftereffects of war, the focus is less on social criticism and more on the individuals. Fellini has a special talent in seeing the essence of a character, and bringing it out in an incisive visual form (either on paper or on screen), and it’s the characters of Gelsomina, Zampanó and Il Matto, with a quantity of sadness and a dash of whimsicalness, that make the film unforgettable. At times, it seems that the childlike innocence of Gelsomina comes close to a caricature; like the clown-persona she acts out with Zampanó, her expressions of sadness and happiness are extreme.