If, quite a few years ago, you were visiting London and happened to find yourself near the Baker Street Cinema, you would have seen a strange sight.
You would have seen a young woman sitting in the gutter, crying uncontrollably. A young man would have been standing next to her, trying to get her to stand up. People walking past were saying things to him like 'you brute', or 'you bounder' (very British, the last.)
The young woman was my girlfriend. And I was the brute. I deserved the attacks. I had, after all, been pitiless and cruel. I had taken my girlfriend to the cinema to see Fellini's La Strada even though I knew from first-hand experience its harrowing emotional power.
This 1953 Italian movie won Fellini the first of his four Best Foreign Picture Oscars. It was well deserved -- this is a consummate piece of film-making. And its cosmopolitan cast -- one actor from Mexico (Anthony Quinn), one from the USA (Richard Basehart) and one Italian (Giuletta Masina) created a wonderful synergy. Their portrayals of the tragic trio who make up this tale of cruel jealously and suffering and thwarted love, could not have been bettered. Their acting is what verisimo drama is all about.
Anthony Quinn is just superb as Zampano, a Circus strong-man, who picks up the simple, naive village-girl Gelsomina to act as his assistant, cook, bed-warmer and everything else. She has no choice; she is sold to Zampano by her mother. And she lacks the will or free spirit to break from a brutal relationship. This is the sort of life she knew, and will always know.
Fellini chose his wife Giuletta Masina to play Gelsomina, and her portrayal is one of the outstanding screen characterisations. So vivid is her portrayal that it's hard not to believe that this is the real character -- impossible to reconcile this with the very different role she made famous many years later, as Juliette in her husband's Juliette of the Spirit.
The third member of the trio is the young, handsome and, compared to Quinn, very vulnerable high-wire artist known simply as The Fool (Richard Basehart). His zest for life, humour and bravado wins the quiet love of Gelsomina -- and the fury of Zampano. The stage is set for Fellini's dramatic and moving, and utterly realistic denoument.
Yes, La Strada is tough viewing. It's also brilliant and compelling viewing. And memory of the character of Gelsomina, the quiet, mouse-like little animal who is almost - but not quite - a woman, will never leave you. Giuletta Masina's extraordinary acting is at the core of this movie -- it's a performance which absolutely dominates the screen.
I've seen La Strada twice on the cinema-screen, in what would have been regarded as near-optimal prints. But I cannot believe the print quality could have rivalled the sheer brilliance of the pristine transfer of this half-century old black-and-white film.
There is no evidence of print-wear at all. And the tonal range, from deep blacks to clear whites and perfect graduations of grey, is superb. This is archival-quality.
For once, I have a dilemma about which soundtrack to recommend.
We have two language options, both in two-channel mono. There is the 'original' Italian language track, or you can choose the 'original' English-language track produced primarily for American consumption.
I have never heard this English track before -- early showings in my home-town of Melbourne, and in London, were in Italian with English subtitles. The English track features dubbing by both Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart -- and the dubbed voice of Giuletta Masina is very close to her own, and free of an over-emphasised American accent.
Listen to both, and take your choice. If anything, the English track has a clearer, more direct presence. The Italian is a tad more distant. Its sound is excellent considering the era, but it seems to lack quite the same warmth and clarity.