Feature Article

Between the Fasces and the Cross: Politics and History in Federico Fellini's "La Strada"

Authors: Peter Gardner (N/A) , Barbara Foley (Rutgers University-Newark)

  • Between the Fasces and the Cross: Politics and History in Federico Fellini's "La Strada"

    Feature Article

    Between the Fasces and the Cross: Politics and History in Federico Fellini's "La Strada"

    Authors: ,

How to Cite:

Gardner, P. & Foley, B., (2021) “Between the Fasces and the Cross: Politics and History in Federico Fellini's "La Strada"”, Film Criticism 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1035

Download XML



Published on
14 Oct 2021
Peer Reviewed

“At the beginning of La Strada there was only a confused feeling […] an indefinite melancholy, a sense of guilt like a diffused shadow; vague and fleeting, made up of memories and foreboding.”

—Federico Fellini

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

—Karl Marx

We argue that La Strada (1954), routinely viewed as apolitical, psychoanalytical, or metaphysical in orientation, is in fact Federico Fellini’s most political film. While Fascism and the Catholic Church are central presences in several of Fellini’s later films—somberly in La Dolce Vita (1960), comically in I Clowns (1970), exuberantly in Roma (1972), and sardonically in Amarcord (1973)— they haunt Fellini’s first Oscar-winning film more compellingly because they are buried in its political unconscious. The later films enjoy the distance afforded by irony; La Strada testifies to the anxiety generated by the repression of a history that cannot be directly confronted.

The methodology guiding our analysis of La Strada draws largely upon the work of Fredric Jameson, who urges that texts be read symptomatically, as “symbolic acts” at once testifying to and evading the formative power of “determinate social contradictions.” The “imaginary solutions” texts offer to unresolvable historical conflicts reveal, however obliquely, eruptions of the political unconscious, which represses—and then sutures over—the sources of anxiety and pain: “history is what hurts.”1 The history that is repressed in La Strada, we will argue, involves the postwar papering over the Fascist-era complicity between the Vatican and the state. This disturbing history—first ignored by postwar viewers and critics of the film bent upon expunging memories of Fascism and the war—has been further obliterated in the subsequent consensus, dominant to this day, that La Strada is an essentially apolitical film by an essentially apolitical filmmaker. Where Jameson largely steers away from examining the involvement of the author as a determining element in a text’s avoidance of a painful engagement with the past, however, we propose that Fellini’s own history, while reflective of his individual insertion in larger historical processes, contributes to his emotional state giving rise to the film. The angst that suffuses La Strada, so poignantly evoked in Nino Rota’s musical score, bears witness to a painful history that is at once broadly social and specifically individual.

We begin by examining some key moments in Fascist-era history that are vital to understanding La Strada’s veiled relationship to its political and historical context. These include the struggle between the Church and the state over the education of the nation’s youth; the mass-cultural promotion of the image of the strongman as bearer of the nation’s destiny; and the role played by the assassination of the antifascist priest Don Giovanni Minzoni in exposing the regime’s brutality toward its perceived enemies. There follows a discussion of Fellini’s personal amnesia about Fascism and the war, which, we argue, aligns with the postwar amnesia that was widely promulgated by the political and cultural establishment. Even the debate over the film’s relationship to neorealism, continuing to this day, has largely occluded rather than illuminated its connections with this history.2 We then approach the film itself, focusing upon the roles played by Zampanò, il Matto (the Fool), and Gelsomina in limning its oblique commentary on the nation’s still-recent past. That La Strada attempts to supply “imaginary solutions” to “determinate social contradictions”— especially as it moves toward closure — testifies to the continuing pressures exerted by “the repressed and buried reality” inhabiting its political unconscious.3


Three features of Fascist-era Italian history are central to the political schema guiding the construction of characters and events in La Strada. The overarching framework is supplied by the competition and collusion between Church and state that characterized the entire period between 1922—when Mussolini came to power—and 1945, the end of World War II. While there had been sharply antagonistic relations between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy from its unification during the years 1859-1871, the 1922 appointment of Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister by Vittorio Emanuele III intensified diplomatic relations between the state and the Church. For several years, the goals of the two remained at odds. Mussolini, hoping to shepherd Catholics into the Fascist fold, warned that no form of “political Catholicism” would be tolerated: “Priests should only say mass; they should not mix in profane affairs—like politics.” By contrast, Pope Pius XI, wishing “to restore Italy to God and God to Italy,” demanded that Catholicism be recognized as the official religion and that the separation of Church and state be abolished.4 Negotiations between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy were concluded when the Pope, the King, and Mussolini agreed to the three treaties of the Lateran Pacts in 1929, formalizing the co-ordination of the Vatican and the Fascist regime and officially conjoining Church and state.

Throughout the Fascist era, both Mussolini and the Pope saw the future as contingent upon shaping the education—and primary loyalties—of Italian youth. The Church had staked its claim in 1868, in the midst of the conflict to unify Italy, with the youth organization Azione Cattolica [Catholic Action], first called the Società della Gioventù Cattolica. Obedience to the Pope, sentire cum Ecclesia, was the first of the four founding principles. The Pope made clear the non-negotiability of the continuing existence of Catholic Action, which he called “the apple of our eye.”5 The Duce, however, “intended the Church, and the Holy See in particular, to understand that the education of Italian youth would conform to the legislation of the Opera Nazionale Balilla [the Fascist youth organizations]” formally nationalized in 1926.6 The diplomatic struggles between the Vatican and the regime intensified soon after.7 In the end, the “Vatican’s need to ensure Catholic Action’s survival against the depredations of the ‘totalitarian’ state was both the reason for breaking off negotiations with the government, and for pushing them to a definitive conclusion.”8 Mussolini, in turn, declared that “in this area we are intractable… we need to give these young people a sense of virility, of power, of conquest.”9 The struggle for the hearts and minds of the nation’s youth was central to both the conflict between Church and state and its pragmatic reconciliation.

Popular culture played a key role in the shaping the consciousness of the youth who presumably held Italy’s future in their hands. In particular, the image of the Fascist strongman embodied an ideal of masculine nationalism. As Mussolini declared in an oft-repeated aphorism, the role of women was to “obey, care for the home, bear children and accept infidelity.”10 “The mass loves strong men,” he pronounced. “The mass is female.”11 Indeed, this formulation for describing Mussolini was taken up the New York Times, which in 1922 described the newly appointed Prime Minister as “that person, to the lack of whom Italy has long attributed her political misfortunes—a strong man”12 The Fascist regime’s newsreels in the cinemas routinely disseminated pictures of strongmen as exemplars of patriotic manhood.13 These often featured not only the bare-chested Mussolini himself—who spoke in praise of the ideal Italian male whose “beauty lies in his roughness and his elegance in the perfect dominion of his muscles”14— but also the exploits of the prominent Fascist Party Secretary Achille Starace, who was filmed jumping through flaming hoops in Mussolini’s Olympic Stadium. The “new Fascist man” on a motorcycle, in an automobile or airplane was the embodiment of modernity.15

Figure 1:
Figure 1:
Figure 1: Mussolini on skis.
Figure 2:
Figure 2:
Figure 2: Zampanò and Gelsomina at the circus.

Besides inspiring the population as a whole to heights of patriotic fervor, such pronouncements and images were to furnish role models for the boys and girls who sported military-style uniforms as they engaged in coordinated gymnastics and marched to the accompaniment of nationalist hymns. That girls were expected to adhere to traditional patterns of subservience even as they donned uniforms and marched in parades was an encompassable contradiction: both roles, after all, entailed submission to Church and state.16

As Fascism consolidated its hold in the course of the 1930s, the collusion of Church and state took on an increasingly authoritarian and militaristic aura. But—for purposes of linking this history specifically to La Strada—let us backtrack for a moment. It bears noting that the rapprochement between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy nearly collapsed in 1923, when Blackshirts (squadristi)—at the command of the former war hero-turned-Fascist thug Italo Balbo—murdered Don Giovanni Minzoni, an anti-Fascist priest, in Argenta, near Fellini’s hometown of Rimini. While the assault on the priest—whose political activity had “inevitably isolated him from the majority of wealthy Catholics”17—was one of many Fascist incursions and attacks on Catholic organizations at the time, Minzoni’s death shook both the Vatican and the regime.18 Minzoni was not only a decorated First World War veteran but also the popular parish leader of Catholic Scouts, which rivalled the Fascists’ Balilla organizations. Balbo directly intervened in June of 1923, telling Argenta’s young parishioners that, at “the will and order of the DUCE… [they] should be lupetti [little wolves], Balilla or Avantguardisti.” Don Minzoni answered that he “took his orders only from the POPE and that his children, protected by him, would always be united in the name of God for their real and only good, which was not that of learning to use rifles.” (emphasis in original)19 A few weeks later, Balbo’s squadristi smashed the skull of the defiant Minzoni.

The newspapers published the accusations and denials of Don Minzoni’s assassination widely; however, a 1924 investigation yielded no findings; a 1925 sham trial dismissed the case.20 Fascist attacks against the Catholic organizations continued for several years; Fascist officials publicly deplored the acts but privately ensured that no one was punished. After the war, the Minzoni case was again reopened in a trial that was extensively reported in Italy and abroad; the New York Times tersely noted the accused were charged with murdering a priest “because he had formed a Boy Scout troop that competed with fascist youth organizations.”21 Three Fascists were found guilty but absolved under the terms of the postwar amnesty. There would prove to be a close association between amnesty and amnesia.


Fellini was two years old when the Blackshirts marched on Rome and Mussolini seized power; three when Minzoni was murdered; five when Fascism became the official regime; and nine when representatives of Pius XI and Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts of 1929. Until the age of eleven, Fellini attended Catholic schools where Fascist patriotism was conjoined with Church doctrine. He marched in Fascist parades and signed his early drawings as “Av. Fellini” (“Avantguardista,” the teenaged males of the ONB).

None of these actions in itself signifies that Fellini was anything other than a typical youth of his time. As Tullio Kezich observes: “In the autumn of 1925, the year in which Fascism became the regime, [Fellini] was enrolled in the nursery school of the San Vicenzo nuns. […] He was a child like any other […] crushed between the Fasces and the Church.”22 His later admission that, at the age of nineteen, “Even I, very young indeed, believed in that empire” hardly suggests that he bore an especially heavy burden of political or historical guilt.23 What does bear scrutiny, however, is his contradictory account of the nature and extent of the influence of his early experiences upon his later cinematic work. On his sixtieth birthday, Fellini declared that “there is nothing autobiographical in my films.”24 Yet the narrative self-reflexivity in La Dolce Vita, I Clowns, and Roma, which in various ways address Fascism, the Church, and the burden of history, unremittingly portrays Fellini himself as a vital link between past and present. Most significantly, a number of the personal memories recorded in his 1967 memoir La Mia Rimini (My Rimini) were clearly drawn upon in Amarcord. The film’s satiric portrayal of the arrival of the Fascist official in Rimini closely resembles Fellini’s own description of this event, down the representation of a wheelchair-bound veteran racing in the celebratory parade. More ominously, the episode in Amarcord where Fascists force the young protagonist’s father to swallow castor oil suggestively relates to the moment in La Mia Rimini when the adolescent Fellini, suspecting that his father had been beaten by “certain louts who hung about the bar in their black shirts,” views his mother and father exchanging furtive glances “to avoid my knowing … when the conversation began to touch on certain matters.” He concludes, “[M]y confusion increased the day I saw those louts I suspected singing in church, with the priest.”25 Fellini’s half-joking statement that “I am a liar, but an honest one” at once acknowledges and evades the dubious veracity of his denial of autobiographical traces in his cinematic oeuvre.26

The Fellini of the 1960s and beyond appears to have been capable, at a safe distance, of referring to the historical roles of Fascism and the Church in Italian life. Pondering the psychological impact of coming of age under Fascism upon his generation, he stated: “Fascism and adolescence continue to be, to some extent, permanent historical phases of our lives. Adolescence is of our individual lives; Fascism is of the national life: to remain, in short, eternal children, to blame others, to live with the comforting feeling that there is someone who thinks for you, at times it is your mother, at times your father, another time the mayor, or the duce, and then the bishop, and finally the Madonna and television.” When it came to discussing the origins of La Strada, however, Fellini was at once provocative and vague: “At the beginning of La Strada there was only a confused feeling […] an indefinite melancholy, a sense of guilt like a diffused shadow; vague and fleeting, made up of memories and foreboding.”27 Its “deeper roots,” he further commented, might be found in his “remorse, nostalgia, regrets, a fairy tale of betrayed innocence and the grief-stricken hope for an unambiguous world of trusting relationships, and the impossibility and the betrayal of all of this. In short, the confused, obscure sense of guilt that is nourished, increased and administered with unflagging care by Catholic blackmail. But to return to those roots would require the help of a brilliant psychoanalyst.”28 Fellini in fact sought the assistance of psychoanalysis while suffering from a nervous breakdown three weeks before La Strada was completed.29 While we cannot know with any specificity what Fellini might have had in mind when he referred to “guilt,” “betrayal” and “Catholic blackmail,” the terms themselves, in their generality, imply the presence of emotional armor guarding against more intimate revelation.

Fellini’s apparent repression of La Strada’s connection to the Fascist era has been compounded by the critical debates around the film, especially regarding its relationship to neorealism. When La Strada appeared, some Marxist critics scolded Fellini for abandoning his earlier work in the neorealist vein, such as his contributions (as screenwriter) to Roberto Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta (1945) and Paisà (1946), then (as director) to a segment of Amore in Città (1953).30 L’Unità, the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), viewed La Strada as a “dangerous involution of the young director.” Guido Aristarco, in the Marxist Cinema Nuovo, warned that the new film “reverts to pre-war attitudes of individualism, mysticism and the quest for pure style.” But the definition of neorealism accompanying these charges was often hazy. What would enable “the maturation of neorealism into realism,” Aristarco urged, would be its engagement with a “political-economic analysis of contemporary social structure.” Notably absent here, however, was any reference to the historical processes generating “contemporary social structure.”31 The prominent screenwriter and critic Cesare Zavattini underlined the necessity for emphasis upon the present. “The cinema should never turn back,” he declared. “It should accept, unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today.”32 Although neorealism was often associated with leftist politics, the critics supporting it increasingly limited its role to the representation of current social problems. As is indicated by the continuing debates over La Strada’s relationship to neorealism, a topic beyond the scope of this essay, the term increasingly signified a style more than an outlook on the world.33

As Italy grappled with postwar reconstruction, attention was directed away from the past—not only by leaders of state eager to draw Italy into European capitalist modernity, but also by those film critics calling for an art focused on the immediacy of everyday life. Gian Piero Brunetta’s magisterial study of Italian neorealism details how the erasure of leftist critique was effected. Political and private interests converged; the state-controlled film censorship commission suppressed both individual scenes and entire films deemed “no longer of interest [to] anyone,” that is, containing “material connected to the theme of the war, of Fascism, and of the Resistance.”34 Brunetta explains how the governmental policy—which awarded prizes to directors and producers following the new guidelines—was reinforced by the Catholic Church’s “anticommunist crusade,” whose primary objective was to efface “the war, the memory of the Resistance and the responsibilities of the fascists [..] The representation of the war had already been condemned [by the Church] as early as Roma Città Aperta (1945) and Il Sole Sorge Ancora (1946); little by little requests were advanced to eliminate all possible references to the past.”35 By the mid-1950s, moreover, there was intense cinematic activity on the part of parish churches in towns with at least five thousand inhabitants; of the 16,000 cinemas in Italy in 1956, a third—containing one million seats— belonged to the Church.36 Memories of the Fascist era and the war, as well as the near-complete complicity of the nation’s economic, political and religious institutions in that tragedy, were to be quashed as fully, if not as ruthlessly, as anti-Fascist activity had been quashed under Mussolini.


We propose that La Strada, despite its apparent distance from an immediate historical context, contains a repressed historical narrative of the Fascist-era rivalry between the Regime and the Vatican over the indoctrination of young Italians as either ardent Fascists or devoted Catholics. The film’s openness to a broad range of interpretations—its principal characters, in their abstraction, suggestively point to meanings beyond themselves—has invited a one critic to summarize, “La Strada’s simple allegorical poetry has been variously interpreted as Christian allegory, pre-feminist tragedy and Freudian tripartite turmoil.”37 Instead, we argue that the film’s deep structure consists primarily in its veiled relationship to history. The metaphysical and ahistorical critical interpretations it apparently invites, we will conclude, are symptomatic of its avoidance of “determinate social contradictions” too painful for direct portrayal.

Of the film’s principal characters, Zamapanò evidently correlates with Fascist iconography: while not signifying Mussolini, he functions as a composite embodiment of the Fascist strongman. His bare-chested display of chain-breaking strength recalls not only Mussolini’s own bravado before the camera but also the gymnastic feats of the Fascist Party Secretary Starace and other embodiments of the male Fascist mystique.  Indeed, Zampanò is a broadly allusive figure, referring not only to actual historical prototypes but also to the rich history of Italian cinematic strongmen going back to the Maciste of Cabiria (1914).

The sadism intrinsic to Zampanò’s performative masculinity, shown, for example, in his whipping Gelsomina’s legs to teach her how to announce his arrival, recalls the programmatic patriarchal domination of wife and children in the model Fascist family. At the same time, the crude bargain through which Zampanò acquires Gelsomina—the payment of ten thousand lire to her mother, as well as the money given to feed her hungry siblings before she is taken away—points to the contradictory Fascist treatment of the family. The state benefits to children were used “to habituate mothers to the idea that their offspring belonged to the nation and that in case of war they had to be sacrificed to its well-being,” observes Victoria De Grazia. “The state obsessed about the privileged bond between mothers and children, and then brutally violated it.”38

La Strada’s portrayal of Zampanò—reinforced by Anthony Quinn’s unabashed expression of his character’s brutality—suggests Fellini’s bitterly satirical attitude toward the Fascist strongman. Zampanò’s massive body, rather than displaying the “roughness and … elegance in the perfect dominion of his muscles,” is exhibited for small change. His motorcycle, rather than a representation of pure phallic power, is encumbered by the shabby trailer of economic necessity, undermining of the myth of the Fascist New Man as embodiment of modernity.39

Figure 3:
Figure 3:
Figure 3: 1937 Moto Guzzi advertisement.
Figure 4:
Figure 4:
Figure 4: Gelsomina pushes Zampanò’s motorcycle.

He is, moreover, hardly the object of love by the “mass that is female.” His first evening with Gelsomina, whom he will at times refer to as his “wife,” is the occasion for rape; the prostitute from the trattoria ridicules his motorcycle; while the widow who passes on to him the clothing of her deceased husband clearly expects intercourse in payment. When he and Gelsomina join the circus, moreover, and she begins rehearsing with il Matto, Zampanò’s demand that she work with him, and him alone—despite the owner insisting that all performers work together—echoes the regime’s attempt at complete dominance over Italian youth.To the extent that Zampanò’s fate illustrates the trajectory of Fascist Italy, it embodies a narrative of both failure and betrayal. Indeed, his final abandonment of Gelsomina in the snow possibly suggests the disastrous Italian invasion of the USSR in the winter of 1942-43, when tens of thousands of young soldiers, at the behest of the high command, were sacrificed to the glory of the fatherland. We read the film’s closing scene, showing Zampanò’s collapse on the beach, as a harsh sentence upon the self-destructive—and fundamentally fragile—Fascist strongman unable to break the chains of his persona.

There is widespread agreement among commentators on La Strada that the struggle between Zampanò and il Matto over what Gelsomina should be and do supplies the main impetus to the film’s narrative trajectory. Often this struggle is seen in moral or characterological terms: the bully versus the wise fool, the body versus the spirit. We argue that the conflict between the two men is most cogently understood as the tug-of-war between the ONB and Catholic Action, in which the childlike Gelsomina figures as the prize — or the victim. This historical interpretation helps to untangle a knot that has puzzled many of the film’s critics who treat its religious undercurrent — namely, whether il Matto should be taken as an embodiment of Christian orthodoxy, or whether, with his contradictory aura of innocence and antagonism, he is to be seen as a spiritual outsider to hierarchical Catholicism.

There is sufficient material in the film to support either perspective. Il Matto first appears at the festival in honor of the Immaculate Conception, when, wearing wings suggesting the dove of the Holy Spirit, he walks a tightrope high above the crowd; and yet the camera’s cutting from the church interior to his act suggests the overlap, indeed complicity, between his popular entertainment and the Church’s somber rituals. When Gelsomina evinces signs of rebellion against Zampanò’s abuse, it is il Matto’s Franciscan counsel that “even a pebble has a use” which leads her to remain with her oppressor.40 His parable thus colludes with the advocacy of marital subservience espoused by the young nun in the convent sequence, who says, “I follow my husband, as you follow yours.” “If you don’t stay with him,” asks il Matto, “who will?” When il Matto and Gelsomina part outside the jail from which Zampanò is being released, he places a religious medallion around her neck before skipping away.

At the same time, il Matto’s child-like innocence separates him radically from the dour and judgmental representatives of the Church generally prevailing in the film: the frowning priest presiding over the procession celebrating the Immaculate Conception; the nun who chases Gelsomina out of the bedroom of the ailing child. During il Matto’s tightrope act, moreover, the low to high shots emphasize his separation, moral as well as physical, from the disciplined formality of the religious procession and mass. His high voice, bizarre laughter, and childlike aura—down to the tiny violin he plays—also link him to Gelsomina, as does his apparently intuitive knowledge of the melody, introduced in the opening credits, that she first sings and later plays on her trumpet. 41 Above all, il Matto’s death at the hands of Zampanò, whom he has mercilessly teased and baited, rehearses, down to its details, the skull-crushing death of the anti-Fascist priest Don Giovanni Minzoni in the wake of his defiance of Italo Balbo.42 Il Matto appears to be both inside and outside the ideological constraints of the Catholic church, at once allied with and alienated from its formal doctrines and rituals.

A historically grounded interpretation of the relationship between Zampanò and il Matto allows for—indeed, welcomes—these complexities. On the one hand, the fierce contestation between Zampanò and il Matto over the fate of Gelsomina rehearses many features of the struggle between the state and the Vatican over the nation’s youth. On the other hand, the anomalous tendencies within il Matto’s own behavior replicate some of the contradictions besetting the Church in Italy during the Fascist era. For Don Giovanni Minzoni evidently viewed his defiance of the regime as an enactment of, not a departure from, Christian doctrine: The Pope, he claimed, was on his side. Just as Zampanò can be seen as a composite representation of Fascist male domination, il Matto can be viewed as a composite rendering of the many anti-Fascist priests who, from the March on Rome to World War II, lost their lives resisting the regime from within the confines of the Church.43

Despite their evident antagonism, however, both men are suggestively paralleled through the musical themes through which state and Church are portrayed. While most of the commentary on the role played by music in La Strada focuses upon the lyrical melody introduced nondiegetically in the opening credits—and then rendered in various diegetic performances, vocal and instrumental, by Gelsomina and il Matto—it bears noting that jaunty militarism and ritual orthodoxy are subtly conjoined in the film’s musical score. In the scene where Gelsomina sits by the side of the road, three members of a military band march by, playing an upbeat and syncopated tune. This scene is immediately followed by the procession celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in which the dirge-like, elongated phrases nonetheless convey the identical tune with identical harmonic modulations. (Once one becomes aware of the harmonic and melodic parallelism, the connection between the juxtaposed scenes, functioning largely on a preconscious level, cannot be missed.) While the marching musicians can be viewed simply as an injection of Felliniesque whimsy, the conjoining of their melody with the oppressive heft of the tune accompanying the Catholic procession unmistakably links the worlds of soldiers and priests. The fact that these musical themes are both contained in the film’s Chapter 10, titled “Processions”—and that they both immediately follow Gelsomina’s singing of her signature tune in Chapter 9—sets up the tension that will soon be played out: will she or will she not escape from the oppressive institutions that shape and guide her lot in life?

We come, finally, to Gelsomina, the character around whom revolves the action of La Strada. She was beloved by audiences, for in 1955 Fellini was beset by requests for a sequel. “I could have earned a fortune selling her [Gelsomina’s] name to doll manufacturers, to sweet firms,” he complained. “[E]ven Walt Disney wanted to make an animated cartoon about her.”44 Her characterization has given rise to a range of critical analyses. With her pancake make-up and clown-like body language, Giulietta Masina’s performance recalls comedic traditions from commedia dell'arte to Charlie Chaplin; like Zampanò and il Matto, Gelsomina gestures toward a meaning beyond herself.45 If this meaning has religious bearing, however, her relationship to Catholic doctrine is ambiguous. Is she excluded from the Church—as is implied when the procession presses her against a wall during the procession celebrating the Immaculate Conception— or does she embody virginal innocence and purity, spiritual if not physical? The conception of women’s familial role implied by her relationship to the two men guiding her life is similarly ambiguous. The film can be seen as a searing representation of marital misogyny, aided and abetted by the Vatican’s harsh ideological discipline, which included the strict laws forbidding divorce in Italy until 1970.46 But while Gelsomina’s decision to remain with Zampanò has been interpreted in psychoanalytic terms as “the defense mechanism known as ‘identification with the aggressor,’” it can also be taken as an implicit endorsement of patriarchal authority.47 This conclusion appears to have been widely embraced by audiences in mid-1950s Italy. “[A] Gelsomina Club was started in Naples, and Giulietta was bombarded with letters,” writes Fellini biographer John Baxter. “Women wrote to say their husbands were as cruel as Zampano [sic] but that she had persuaded them to look for the good inside. Children quoted the parable of the stone as if it were a well-loved fairy story.”48 Il Matto’s advice that Gelsomina remain with Zampanò was taken as something like gospel truth.

While the film’s representation of gender clearly warrants critical attention, we emphasize an aspect of Gelsomina’s characterization rarely stressed in commentaries upon the film—namely, her insistently childlike quality. Rather than a simple-minded character, Gelsomina, with her youthful aura, figures centrally in the film’s embedded reflection on the institutional dispute over the education of the young.49 In several scenes Gelsomina is shown surrounded by children, playing with children. When she introduces the strongman, however—“È arrivato Zampanò!”—her playfulness is militarized, reminding us that girls as well as boys were drawn into Fascist youth groups. Her instruments—snare drum, trumpet—are those of a marching band; her everyday clothing consists, at first, of a military issue World War I-era cape, which also recalls the uniforms of the Fascist youth organizations, and, later, of a long soldier’s coat. In the drunken scene directly following the religious parade, she teasingly challenges some soldiers to march in step: “soldati attenti - uno, due”: in her consciousness, religious ritual and military discipline have been aligned. That the soldiers refer to her as “matta,” however, signals her attraction toward the gentle il Matto, even as she still wears the military cape.

Figure 5:
Figure 5:
Figure 5: Mussolini reviews the caped “giovani fasciste.”
Figure 6:
Figure 6:
Figure 6: Gelsomina and the soldiers.

In the sharpening competition between Zampanò and il Matto when all three work with the Giraffa Circus, musical instruments display the shifting balance of power between the men: Il Matto encourages Gelsomina to blast away on the trombone, playfully disrupting not only his own delicate violin performance but also the previous association of the trumpet and drum with the authoritarian Zampanò. The conflict between Zampanò and il Matto reaches a tragic climax when the strongman kills the acrobat. Gelsomina is inconsolable; while she survives Zampanò’s abandonment of her in the snow—perhaps suggesting, by symbolic extension, the tattered condition of those soldiers returning from the Eastern front—she dies offscreen, leaving as her legacy only the lyrical tune she shared with il Matto. The strongman has been defeated—but so too has been his antagonist, as well as the trusting young woman for whose loyalty they both have been contending.

Although the plot of La Strada can be read in realist (indeed, even neorealist) terms—the male characters, contesting their dominance over a female, enact a plausible tragic narrative of control, victimization, jealousy, and revenge—interpreting the film as a repressed historical narrative of Fascist-era Italian politics and history enables us to account for some of its apparently anomalous features. For one thing, the ironic crux of the plot—Gelsomina’s decision to remain with Zampanò on the advice of il Matto—makes far less sense on the level of characterization than it does on the level of historical commentary. Even Richard Basehart’s chameleon-like portrayal of il Matto as alternately flighty and dependable, selfish and caring, cannot fully account for the inconsistencies displayed in his behavior. Interpreted as a composite figure embodying the contradictory Fascist-era pressures on the Italian priesthood, however, il Matto can be seen as at once defying the authority of the strongman and acceding to his patriarchal dominance. In spite of—or perhaps because of—his parable of the pebble, il Matto exemplifies the troubled complicity of the Church with the Fascist state.

Moreover, a historicized reading of the conflicts informing La Strada sheds light on some of Fellini’s otherwise opaque comments on the origins of the film. Il Matto’s playing upon Gelsomina’s guilt in contemplating leaving Zampanò can be seen as a form of “Catholic blackmail.” Fellini’s repeated assertion that Fascism entailed betrayal—a “fairy tale of betrayed innocence and the grief-stricken hope for an unambiguous world of trusting relationships, and the impossibility and the betrayal of all of this”—is borne out by the ways in which both the regime and the Church, in the persons of Zampanò and il Matto, betray Gelsomina’s innocence and violate her trust. Moreover, her immaturity bears out Fellini’s statement that “Fascism and adolescence continue to be, to some extent, permanent historical phases of our lives. Adolescence is of our individual lives; Fascism is of the national life: to remain, in short, eternal children.” While we posit that a historically informed reading of La Strada illuminates the film, this does not mean that Fellini himself had to be aware of these connections when making the film: the political unconscious is, after all, unconscious. To the extent that “determinate social contradictions” shape both historical events and authorial experiences, however, they inevitably motivate the texts emerging from those events and experiences. As Marx observed, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”50


But the political unconscious also requires that, even as a text obliquely gestures toward its origins in time and place, it masks this relationship by offering “imaginary solutions” to problems intractable in reality.  This rhetorical suturing can be accomplished thematically, by invoking dehistoricized notions of what it means to be human, and formally, by deploying structural and stylistic conventions that mold the viewer’s emotions. As is indicated by critical responses to the character of il Matto in La Strada, the extreme inconsistencies embedded in his apparent quirkiness, while straining against the limits of psychological plausibility, can be readily contained within the widespread belief—so routinely subscribed to in modern capitalist society as to be accepted as common sense—in the unique individuality of “character” or “personality.” From this standpoint, the notion that the entirety of social relations functions as a kind of backdrop to the playing out of idiosyncratic selves directs attention away from the constitutive role of these social relations in shaping the very conditions of possibility of selfhood.

The formal means by which narratives are constructed play a comparably important role in containing the contradictions the texts have displayed.  In La Strada, the opening beach scene shows Gelsomina alone, laboring under a load of firewood; she is about to learn of the death of her sister and enter more fully into the social world. This scene is bookended by the film’s final shots, however, which show Zampanò isolated from social interactions, alone on the beach, wading into the water and then collapsing on the sand. Whether his existential solitariness signals a belated recognition of his unimportance in the universe—he now gazes up to the stars—or anticipates a baptism into conversion and redemption, the film’s ending directs attention away from the substance of the life and death struggle over control of Gelsomina that led to his killing of il Matto. Indeed, the male’s belated coming to terms with his hollowed-out self after the death of a beloved woman invokes a conventional theme of loss extending from Othello to “The Beast in the Jungle” to A Farewell to Arms and beyond. That both the opening and the conclusion take place by the sea suggests a further turn away from historically grounded causality. What is at issue here is not simply that Fellini has returned to spirituality, as some enthusiasts have proclaimed, or descended into mysticism, as some detractors have declared. Rather, the abandonment of the timebound for the timeless is not so much a philosophical choice as an effort to suture over the irreconcilability of the historical conflicts that, while motivating the plot, have eluded direct expression.

Perhaps the formal feature of La Strada that more than any other sutures over “determinate social contradictions,” however, is the strategic deployment of the tune associated with Gelsomina and il Matto in Nino Rota’s musical score. This haunting melody is first heard unaccompanied through Gelsomina’s voice; then three times on il Matto’s violin; then twice on Gelsomina’s trumpet; and, right before the end, through the a cappella singing of the woman hanging out her laundry. As a diegetic element in the narration, the tune is heard by both the film’s characters and the members of its audience. The melody appears in nondiegetic orchestral performance, however, at several other points after the opening credits: when il Matto explains the parable of the pebble; when he gives Gelsomina the religious medallion; when Zampanò abandons Gelsomina in the snow, leaving the trumpet at her side; and, swelling in crescendo at the very end, when the motif is rendered for the film’s audience in full orchestration and harmonic resolution as the camera pulls away from the image of the prostrate Zampanò by the sea.  As a unifying musical theme, the tune has emphasized the spiritual kinship between Gelsomina and il Matto; its penultimate iteration in the song of the laundress suggests that “Gelsomina”—by this point not so much a person as an idea—in some sense still lives, giving transcendent meaning to the pebbles of everyday existence. While the emotional impact of the conjunction of script, scene, and sound at the film’s resounding conclusion is undeniable, so too is the persuasive power of its appeal to a humanism beyond history. The fact that the mentor who nurtured Gelsomina’s development also set in motion the sequence of events resulting in her death is swept away in a wave of harmonic resolution.  The extraordinary ending of La Strada helps us forget that “history is what hurts.”

Figure 7:
Figure 7: the closing sequence of La Strada


Author Biographies:

Barbara Foley is Emerita Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.  Her most recent book is Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Books, 2019). Peter Gardner taught at Temple University Rome until retiring in 2017.

The authors thank the librarians and staffs of the Biblioteca Gabriele De Rosa dell'Istituto Luigi Sturzo, the Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma, the Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea, and the library of Temple University Rome Campus.

We also thank Maria Giulia Fabi, Maria Ponce de Leon and the anonymous referee of Film Criticism for their encouragement and suggestions, as well as Dave Braham for his invaluable insights into Nino Rota’s musical score.


  1. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1996), 20.
  2. See, for example, Gian Piero Brunetta, Il cinema neorealista italiano: storia economica, politica e culturale (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2009), 145-149; and Andrea Minuz, Viaggio al termine dell’Italia: Fellini politico (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino Editore, 2012), 33-40.
  3. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 20.
  4. Ernesto Rossi, Il manganello e l’aspersorio (Firenze: Parenti Editore, 1958), 60; Pierre Milza, Serge Berstein, Storia del fascismo. trans. Maria Grazia Meriggi (Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1982), 304-308. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Italian are ours.
  5. Giovanni Sale, La Chiesa di Mussolini: I rapporti tra fascismo e religione (Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2011), 196.
  6. Sale, La Chiesa di Mussolini, 176.
  7. Albert C. O’Brien, “Italian Youth in Conflict: Catholic Action and Fascist Italy, 1929-31,” Catholic Historical Review 68, no. 4 (October 1982): 625-35.
  8. Phillip Morgan, Italian Fascism,1919 -1945 (London: MacMillan Press LTD, 1995), 95.
  9. Alberto Preti, “Minzoni, Giovanni.” Treccani Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani 74 (2010). https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/giovanni-minzoni_%28Dizionario-Biografico%29/.
  10. Katia Romagnoli, “Donne, la Resistenza ‘taciuta:’ L'esclusione delle donne nella società fascista.” accessed September 12, 2019. http://www.storiaxxisecolo.it/Resistenza/resistenzadonne1.htm.
  11. Emil Ludwig, Colloqui con Mussolini (Milano: Mondadori, 1932), 65.
  12. Alice Rohe, “Mussolini, Hope of Youth, Italy’s ‘Man of Tomorrow’: Hard Work His Creed.” New York Times, November 5, 1922, 109.
  13. Thomas J. Saunders, “A ‘New Man’: Fascism, Cinema and Image Creation.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 12, no. 2 (Winter, 1998): 227-246.
  14. Benito Mussolini, Opera Omnia xxiv (Firenze: La Fenice, 1951-1980), 117.
  15. Jorge Dagnino, “The Myth of the New Man in Italian Fascist Ideology.” Fascism 5, issue 2 (October 2016): 130-148. https://doi.org/10.1163/22116257-00502003.
  16. For a full discussion, see Roberta Sassano, “Camicette nere: Le donne nel ventennio fascista.” El Futuro del Pasado 6 (2015): 253- 280. https://www.elfuturodelpasado.com/ojs/index.php/FdP/article/view/222.
  17. Nicola Palumbi, Don Giovanni Minzoni: Educatore e martire (Edizioni San Paolo, 2003), 70.
  18. Palumbi, Don Giovanni Minzoni, 176.
  19. Franco Molinari, Il messaggio di don Giovannini Minzoni: Atti del convegno nazionale di studio. Ed. Bonigno Zaccagnini and Roberto Ruffilli (Ravena: Centro Studi “G. Donati” (1984), 122.
  20. Rossi, Il manganello e l’aspersorio. 112 -113.
  21. “5 Face Retrial in Priest’s Killing.” The New York Times, May 18, 1946, 7. A series of five articles on the trial in the Roman edition of Il Popolo begins, on 7 June 1947, with: “The interrogation of those accused of murdering Father Minzoni.” It concludes on 21 June of the same year with: “All held responsible for the murder of Father Minzoni acquitted under the amnesty.” “L’interrogatorio degli imputati per l’assassinio di Don Minzoni.” Il Popolo Giugno 07, anno IV, n. 133,1. “Tutti i responsabili dell’assassinio di Don Minzoni assolti per amnistia.” Il Popolo Giugno 21, anno IV, n. 144, 1.
  22. Tulio Kezich, Federico: Fellini, la vita e i film. (Milano: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editori, 2010), 17.
  23. John Baxter, Fellini (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 42-43.
  24. Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1997), 230.
  25. Federico Fellini, La mia Rimini, Ed. Mario Guaraldi and Loris Pellegrini trans. J. Denton, I. Quigley, J. P. Pierozzi (Rimini: Guaraldi Editore Srl, 2007) 62.
  26. Baxter, Fellini, 31.
  27. Fellini, L’arte della visione (Roma: Donzelli Editore, 2009), 88, 71.
  28. Fellini, Fare un film (Torino: Giulio Einaudi, 1993), 60.
  29. Tullio Kezich, Federico: Fellini, la vita e i film, 149 – 150.
  30. Baxter, Fellini, 138-39. While Roma Città Aperta certainly warrants its reputation as a great anti-Fascist film, it bears noting that, as David Forgacs has observed, “The patriotic myth presented in the film was one example of a very widespread production of such myths, to which many other neo-realist films and texts […] contributed. They all responded to a collective need to erase parts of the past, commemorate other parts, and produce a good memory of the war capable of expelling painful or traumatic memories” (Rome Open City: Roma città aperta [London: BFI Publishing, 2000], 69). The “patriotic myth” reinforced in the film consists in its occlusion of the role played by Italian Fascists in aiding and abetting the Nazis during the 1943-45 occupation of Italy. This distortion of the historical record is epitomized in the execution scene where the coup de grâce given to the anti-Fascist priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, is fired by a German officer—even though Pellegrini’s real-life counterpart, Don Giuseppe Morosini, was shot by an Italian officer (Forgacs, 16). The screenwriter who composed the closing scenes of Roma città aperta was, we might remark, Federico Fellini.
  31. Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986), 145.
  32. Baxter, Fellini, 85.
  33. For continuing discussions see, for example, Roger Ebert, “La Strada,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/la-strada-1994; Bert Cardullo, “God Is Love,” The Hudson Review 57, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 118-124, http://www.jstor.com/stable/4151390; and Albert Sbragia, “Fellini and the Auteurists,” Italica 92, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 660-679. http://www.jstor.com/stable/4389529.
  34. Brunetta, Il cinema neorealista italiano: storia economica, politica e culturale (Roma-Bari: Editori Laterza, 2009), 90.
  35. Brunetta, Il cinema neorealista italiano, 111.
  36. Brunetta, Il cinema neorealista italiano, 44.
  37. Tara Brady, “Fellini’s ‘La Strada’ - one of the greatest weepies ever made.” The Irish Times, May 17, 2017. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/fellini-s-la-strada-one-of-the-greatest-weepies-ever-made-1.30848.
  38. Victoria De Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922 – 1945 (Berkeley, U California P, 1992), 110.
  39. Dagnino, “The Myth of the New Man in Italian Fascist Ideology,” 130-148.
  40. Recently joining the discussion has been none other than Pope Francis, who has named La Strada as his favorite Fellini film because of its “implicit reference to Saint Francis.” Fantuzzi, Virgilio. “Al circo con Fellini.” La Civiltà Cattolica. Quaderno 4000 Anno 2017, Volume I. (Roma, Compagnia di Gesù, 11 Febbraio 2017), 414 – 426.
  41. Fellini cut from the script a scene during the wedding sequence when Gelosomina hears the tune on an offscreen radio before singing (and later playing) it herself. This revision clearly makes the melody her own creation—even though various critics have asserted that it is il Matto’s composition (Thomas Van Order, Listening to Fellini: Music and Meaning in Black and White [Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009], 251). The musical source of the melody is the Larghetto from Antonin Dvorák’s Opus 22 Serenade for Strings in E Major.
  42. Palumbi, Don Giovanni Minzoni, 10-11.
  43. Dino Messina, “Preti morti per la libertà,” Corriere della sera 3 luglio 2008, https://lanostrastoria.corriere.it/2008/07/03/preti_morti_per_la_liberta/. “Numerosi i preti uccisi sotto il regime fascista.” la Nuova Ferrara 21 maggio 2005 https://ricerca.gelocal.it/lanuovaferrara/archivio/lanuovaferrara/2005/05/21/UX1PO_UX102.html. Given the widely publicized trial of Minzoni’s killers in 1946-47, Fellini was probably familiar with Minzoni’s 1923 violent beating death at the hands of the squadristi. Moreover, through his work in 1945 as screenwriter for the closing scenes of Roma Città Aperta—which feature the execution of the anti-Fascist priest Don Pietro Pellegrini—Fellini was doubtless aware that this fictional character was based upon two historical models, Don Pietro Pappagallo and Don Giovanni Morosini. http://distribuzione.ilcinemaritrovato.it/per-conoscere-i-film/roma-citta-aperta/il-film-e-la-storia/. Il Matto suggestively relates to more than one historical source.
  44. Baxter, Fellini, 152.
  45. A number of directors, including “Fellini in La Strada (1954) all utilize fluid movements, expressive gestures, and mimicry. It is as if their actors and actresses had received a training in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. These directors use behavior, instead of psychology, to make visible a private space.” Angela Dalle, Vacche, The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 7
  46. The Lateran Pacts of 1929 have never been rescinded. Despite the 1946 national referendum which abolished the monarchy and established the Republic of Italy, the new constitution left them intact. The Vatican’s influence in marital relations, education, contraception, abortion, gender identity, homosexuality and national politics has not faded.
  47. Monica Vincenzi, Luigi Casa, Fellini metafisico: La riconciliazione tra sogno e realtà (Roma: Armando Editore, 2019), 38 - 39.
  48. Baxter, Fellini, 151.
  49. Peter Bondanella and Manuela Gieri, editors. La Strada: Federico Fellini, Director (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991), 231.
  50. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in A Handbook of Marxism, ed. Emile Burns (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 116.