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Pick of the Week: “La Strada” DVD

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At the 1957 Academy Awards Ceremony, the Oscar for Best Foreign Film went to the Italian movie “La Strada” (1954). Federico Fellini, the director of that film, went on to take his place among the greats of world cinema, and today he is remembered for an impressive body of work that includes “La Dolce vita” (1960), “8 1/2” (1963), and “Amarcord” (1973). While “La Strada” lacks the complexity and audaciousness of some of Fellini’s later movies, it is nonetheless a charming, accessible, and poetic film that no cineaste should miss, and I’m delighted that Criterion Collection has released it on DVD.

“La Strada” was photographed in the neorealist tradition, and the picture quality on the DVD is very nearly flawless. The movie was shot at ordinary-looking locations, and the camerawork and editing are straightforward. But Fellini’s lyrical images and Nino Rota’s rather romantic score—reminiscent of his work in “The Godfather”—mitigate the bleakness of the setting.

Anthony Quinn is the leading man in “La Strada,” and I found him to be both compelling and intimidating as the bullying protagonist. Another Hollywood actor, Richard Basehart, plays an important supporting role in the movie. However, the most famous thing about “La Strada” is probably the Chaplinesque performance by Italian actress Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s wife), and I doubt that anyone who has ever seen the movie could forget her in it. Masina helps to create one of the most heartbreaking and enchanting roles I’ve seen on film.

It appears to me as though “La Strada” was shot with the Americans speaking English and the Italians speaking Italian, and then the dialogue as heard on the soundtrack was added later. The DVD offers two soundtracks, one in Italian, the other in English. The English-language track has the advantage that the voices of Quinn and Basehart are present, but everyone else sounds strange to me, and all the dialogue comes off stagy. The Italian-language track dubs in other voices for Quinn’s and Basehart’s characters, but the overall dramatic effect seems better to me.

I would characterize the story in “La Strada,” which best translates into English as “The Road,” as being a fable. Quinn portrays Zampanò, a brute of a man who is only a step away from being a beast. Zampanò ekes out a living by traveling around, drawing a crowd to a square, expanding his chest to break a chain, then passing the hat. He takes on the simpleminded Gelsomina (Masina) as a concubine and assistant, and she helps by adding music and humor to his street performances. Zampanò treats Gelsomina badly, but she possesses a sublime purity of heart that permits their arrangement to function, at least for a while. However, when Zampanò butts heads with a trickster known as the Fool (Basehart), things take a bad turn that eventually results in Gelsomina having a nervous breakdown.

“La Strada” tells a somber story, but it still leaves me with a feeling of hope because Zampanò, who is more like an animal than a man at the movie’s beginning, becomes somewhat humanized through his time spent with the soulful Gelsomina.

The Criterion Collection DVD set of “La Strada” comes with a 14-minute video introduction by Martin Scorsese, and there’s also a theatrical trailer for the English-language version of the movie. In addition, there’s a 55-minute documentary made for Italian television titled “Federico Fellini’s Autobiography,” which is reasonably interesting for hard-core Fellini fans like myself. My favorite bonus material is the feature-length scholarly audio commentary by Peter Bondanella, author of “Italian Cinema: Neorealism to the Present” and “The Cinema of Federico Fellini.” Below I’ve given a list of all the special features included with the two-disc set.

Selected Special Features on the DVDs:
  • Two-Disc Set
  • Full-Screen Format (1.33:1)
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
  • Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
  • English Subtitles
  • Audio Commentary by Fellini Scholar Peter Bondanella
  • Video Introduction by Martin Scorsese (14 Min.)
  • Fellini Documentary Originally Broadcast on Italian TV (55 Min.)
  • Theatrical Trailer for English Version
  • 8-Page Booklet (Includes Essay by Peter Matthews)

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