Fellini’s La Strada clearly exists within the Italian Neorealist tradition. It is a film of grit and of the working class—carnival workers, in fact, are the main characters. The film follows these carnies, Zampanó and Gelsomina, as they travel “la strada,” the road. The roads of the Italian countryside are, then, featured in their glory, and so are the decaying urban environments. Yet, in Fellini’s translation of this social reality, the majority of the realism is captured within Anthony Quinn’s Zampanó.
Unlike many neorealist “actors,” Quinn is a professional. And as a non-Italian, his dialogue had to be dubbed in production, but it is almost unnoticeable as Quinn hardly opens his mouth to elucidate a sentence the entire film. His character Zampanó, a strong-man of sorts, looks and acts ox-like; his animal side is all that he expresses. Another character, known only as The Fool, describes Zampanó as a dog that looks like he wants to speak but can only bark, and continues to harass him until Zampanó responds the only way he can: with violence, resulting in The Fool’s death and effectively ending Gelsomina’s relationship with Zampanó.
Zampanó, though, survives off his brutishness. It is how he makes a living, going around and performing as a strong-man. In La Strada, then, Fellini elevates the neorealist picture with a character that encapsulates the psychological hardships of the impoverished. As the film follows Zampanó and Gelsomina, it explores not only the social climate of Italy but focuses in on the individual response. The film ends with Quinn’s Zampanó in anguish on the beach, and the audience is not quite sure what he is thinking. But we feel his pain. It is then that Fellini shows that behind the grime, the grit (which becomes quite literal as Zampanó rolls in the beach’s sand), and the grunts, is ultimately a very human character—a message that could extend to all the Italian working class.
Overall this makes for a fascinating classic film not only about Italian hardship but universal emotional suffering.