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La Strada

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                           La Strada

The story: Traveling strongman Zampano returns to a village to acquire another female assistant for his show after his former helper Rosa dies.  In the course of his journey with her sister Gelsomina, we discover why good help is hard to keep with a man like Zampano.  In the end, Gelsomina suffers the same fate as Rosa.

     Released in 1954, La Strada (or The Road) dramatizes male behavior at its worst through the characters who represent archetypes: the brutish male in the form of Zampano and the submissive female in the form of Gelsomina. If the story seems dated in these post-feminist times, then times have changed for the better.  Where the film excels is the use of animal imagery by filmmaker Federico Fellini to get his message across about the nature of men and women.

     When Zampano is first seen, he is characterized as the strong, silent type at its worst.  He says very little.  He stares at Gelsomina as her mother explains that Zampano needs another helper after Rosa, her sister, died.  The unquestioned death and the mother selling Gelsomina to Zampano for “ten thousand lire” makes a statement about how the life of a female has little value at that time.

     Zampano is physically abusive.  He hits Gelsomina with a switch when she disobeys him.  He slaps her when she, at first, refuses to reconnect with him after she escapes from him.  He also slaps her after she refuses to help him steal from a convent.

     Zampano’s dealings with men are also defined by abuse.  He runs after a fellow performer with a knife after he is teased; in the end, he eventually kills this man known as “the Fool”.  In the final scene, Zampano looks to fight patrons in a restaurant after he gets drunk.

     Like the archetypal insensitive male, Zampano expects and receives blind obedience from Gelsomina.  When he begins to teach her his routine, he says, “Just do as I say.”  When she deviates from his precise words, he hits her with a switch.  When it is late, he advises her to get in back of the van where he sleeps; when she expresses a preference to sleep outdoors instead, he insists.

     Another woman fares no better.  He orders a woman to his table as he does food.  When all three exit the restaurant, Gelsomina trails behind.  Zampano leaves with the woman on his motorbike while he orders Gelsomina to wait for him.  At a wedding, they meet a twice married matriarch who refuses to get married again because she doesn’t like to take “orders”.  Zampano tells Girafe: I give [Gelsomina] orders.”  Like a dutiful wife, she ultimately never leaves him even when opportunities arise.  After he leaves with the redhead, she finds him.  After Zampano is imprisoned, Gelsomina refuses the invitations of both Girafe and the Fool to remain with them instead.  She waits for Zampano until he is released.  Gelsomina reluctantly leaves the confines of the convent even though a sister invites her to stay.

     Loyalty, however, is not mutual.  When Gelsomina becomes a problem (after being traumatically affected by a murder Zampano committed), she becomes useless to him.  During a performance, she misses her cue.  She is unable to cook for him.  At this point, he asks if she wants to return home.  She refuses to have him sleep next to her.  In the end, he cannot cope with her being “sick” and abandons her at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere when she sleeps.

     While Fellini does not suggest that overbearing behavior does not define the men and women in marriage, marriage is suggested in the story.  In the restaurant and later at the convent, Zampano refers to her as his “wife”.  A patron notes: “Your wife ... You and your women.”  This suggests an unfaithfulness on the part of the male.  This is evident when Zampano shows a redhead more attention than he does Gelsomina who he introduces as his “assistant”.  Later in the story, Gelsomina says to him: “Now, I would even marry you if we are to stay together.”  The deaths of Rosa and Gelsomina and the reference to other “women” suggest that women are expendable.

      No all men are presented in a bad light.  By contrast, the Fool is the antithesis of Zampano.  He interacts positively with his female assistant following the first time we see him perform.  He is patient with Gelsomina when she misses a music cue.  He, unlike his nemesis, has a sense of human about himself.  He has qualities that Fellini embraces.

     Viewers may be troubled by Gelsomina to represent women.  She has been mischaracterized as mentally deficient.  Rather she seems innocent and possesses low self esteem which is a by-product of a society that places little value on women expect for the selfish fulfillment of male needs.


     While Zampano treats women in a less-than-human fashion, it is ironically he that is inhuman and this explains the inhuman allusions in the film which takes two forms: non-living and animal.

     Zampano is associated with his motor-bike which the Fool describes as “this monster".  In a prepared speech, Zampano tells the crowd; “ .... just filling my lungs with air like a tire.”  He is introduced as “the man with lungs of iron” and having “ribs of steel”.  Musical instruments used by Gelsomina have symbolic significance: Gelsomina is beaten like the drum; Zampano screams at Gelsomina like the trumpet which requires forceful air:.

     Animal associations take three forms: visual, aural, and verbal.

     A horse walks in the street as Gelsomina waits for Zampano.  On their journey, the van is stopped on the road by sheep.  They perform at a wedding where there are a pig, ducks, a dog.  Oxen cross a road when Gelsomina trails three musicians.  At a religious procession, there is a dog in the street; a pig is hung upside down.  Where c circus troop is staying, a donkey brays waking up Gelsomina; a woman strokes a dog.   The Fool lands on a donkey at the end of his high wire act.  Animals are on the side of the road after the two leave the convent.

     We hear but don’t see animals.  During their comedy routine, Gelsomina brays like a donkey and quacks like a duck.  A dog barks after Gelsomina awakens in the back of the wagon.  Roosters crow following their stay at the woman’s farm.

     Verbal associations with animals take the form of metaphors and similes.  The Fool remarks about Zampano: “A circus needs animals.”  As Zampano runs after the Fool, Girafe shouts: “Stop them.  [Zampano’s] a beast!”  The Fool comments about Zampano: “What a beast!”  Gelsomina later tells Zampano: “You are a beast!”  Zampano informs Gelsomina’s mother: “I even teach dogs.”  Zampano describes Gelsomina’s cooking as “pigs’ food”  In their comedy routine, “ass”, “ducks”, and “donkey” are mentioned.  In the restaurant, Zampano orders “Mutton” (or sheep).  As Zampano sleeps from an evening filled with wine and another woman,   Gelsomina meets a child who informs her: “My dog died there.”  Gelsomina says to the sick child: “My little birdie.”  Zampano asks a matriarch: “You eat standing like a horse?”  Zampano informs the audience: “I don’t say it needs a team of oxen”  Zampano screams at the Fool: “Open the door!  Get out, swine!”  The Fool tells Gelsomina that she was “hard beaten like a donkey”  The Fool says about Zampano: “He’s like a dog.  A dog looks at you ... wants to talk ... and only barks ...”  The circus owner is named Mr. Girafe.  At the convent Zampano and Gelsomina sleep in the barn.

     La Strada has influenced every film which uses the animal motif.  Filmmakers who benefited are Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, and James Cameron.

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