*This essay discusses thematic elements inherent throughout the entirety of the three films (La Strada, Easy Rider, and Alice in the Cities). Watch them.
In our modern American cinema, road films occupy their own genre. And for the average filmgoer, these films—like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Road Trip, and Little Miss Sunshine— fit snugly into the comedy slot on box office weekend. This isn’t and hasn’t always been the case. Each film, though unique in its own way, owes a great debt to films previous. Road films are no different. Persisting throughout various film cultures and movements—from the Neorealists of Italy, to the New Hollywood, and New German Cinema—road films have had their own vibrant and unique trip.
Before embarking on our route towards a better understanding of the road film, we must first work from the same definition of the genre. Most often, the road film genre is described as a film in which the characters embark on a journey. But the word “journey” is very limiting, as it implies a destination. Certain films, like Federico Fellini’s La Strada (a.k.a. The Road) which we will discuss shortly, prominently features characters with no particular destination, at least in terms of a physical location. In order to alleviate any possible confusion, let’s think of the road film as any film, in which a character travels via vehicle on a physical road, which is prominently featured as a visual element in the mise-en-scéne and as a narrative device. For simplicity’s sake in our journey through the genre’s inner-workings, we will also only sample one film from each of the three major movements listed earlier: Neorealism’s La Strada (1954), New Hollywood’s Easy Rider (1969), and New German Cinema’s Alice in the Cities (1974).
As mentioned previously, Federico Fellini’s La Strada does not follow two characters on a simple journey to some particular destination. Rather, their destination is the film’s title, The Road, a path and continuous transition; their livelihood is very literally based in constant movement from one place to another, impermanence as a new locale’s entertainment—uprooted. Gelsomina and Zampanó are brought together by the tough climate of post-war Italy, which is never overtly imaged or referred to, but looms throughout the film’s dark palette and setting on the fringes of the road: a setting that would have been very familiar to the film’s contemporary audience.
The road as metaphor, represents Fellini’s tragic view of that setting. Our introduction to the road in La Strada comes about five minutes into the film. Gelsomina celebrates the fact that she is about to become an artist and will be able to financially support her family. The frame plays in wide shot, as Gelsomina’s younger brothers and sisters gather round her. Suddenly, the sadness of Gelsomina leaving hits her mother, and she cries out for her not to go. Fellini assists her emotional outburst by simultaneously not cutting the shot, but panning with Gelsomina and her family as they rush from their home toward—the shot continues its pan, revealing in deep space and on a slightly elevated road, Zampanó’s motorcyle and wagon. His motorcyle-wagon, a character in its own right, is very clearly the focal point of the mise-en-scéne here. Gelsomina’s home, a bright-white mass, featured prominently in the left of the frame, points towards the deep space at center frame and directly at the motorcyle-wagon and Zampanó, side-by-side, one in the same. The motorcyle-wagon sits, a black mass on the screen, highly contrasted with the rest of the frame’s grays and whites.
In his calculated shot, Fellini is our doomsayer. The music plays ominous in the shot as Gelsomina, hectic, kisses her sobbing family good-bye. Home is the bright light, and this motorcyle-wagon—the road and Zampanó—is darkness. With this, Fellini sets the tone of his film. And with his heavy hand, he helps us understand that we are witnessing a tragedy.
More specifically, we witness the commemoration of a death. Typifying the transition from his first Act to his second, Fellini tosses Gelsomina in the middle of a religious procession. He starts his scene with a wide shot of the parade snaking through the town. Then he forces us in, presenting a close-up of the Crucifix floating above the mass of people—it, superior to them and us, the viewer. A hand-held shot of a priest, forming the symbol of the cross, swoops us into the etherealness of the scene. Tight medium shots of onlookers kneeling in front of the camera signify them inferior. And like Gelsomina, we are pushed forward by the camera and onlookers, sucked into the procession before we even know what it is. She attempts to enter an alley only to be bombarded by a mass of people, running down it. She retreats back towards the camera and finds safety against a wall. In close-up, she rests her head on a poster, connecting her to it; it reads, “Madonna Immaculata”. She stares up. Cut to a close-up-superior shot of the Madonna floating above the crowd. And we realize this isn’t just any religious procession; it is a Dormition: a Crucession—commemorating the death of Mary, the mother of Christ. Fellini drastically submerges us into the scene with his technique. In doing so, he equates Gelsomina, within the scale of the film, to Mary in the scale of spiritual life.
Not only does he connect Gelsomina to the religious tradition, but he also parallels his film with the the spiritual ritual. The scene foreshadows narrative—Gelsomina’s death—of course, but also provides purpose to various other techniques, related specifically to the road. The procession is a movement forward in celebration of spiritual connection to Mary and her continued life in each of us after her death. Throughout the film, diagetic sound prominently features cars passing by, suggesting constant motion even when our main characters have stopped traveling. Fellini, with his dialogue, draws attention to us never knowing Zampanó’s origin, his home. This absence of background highlights for us Zampanó’s constant need to be in transition, his constant movement from town to town. The point is more blatantly made in a small scene; Gelsomina plants tomatoes, but Zampanó forces her to leave before they’d have time to sprout. In fact, many techniques in the film, too many to mention, demonstrate traits similar to the common reading of one of Italian Neorealism’s favorite symbols: the staircase; that is, stairs as transition. Also, the film itself is physically in motion, a change, in transition, while we watch it. For Fellini, the film is a bittersweet celebration of Gelsomina’s death: the very act of motion is life.
In fact, it is only once a character stops moving, that death comes knocking. Toward the beginning of the third and final act, Fellini’s Fool character’s car gets a flat, stopped in the middle of the road. Zampanó beats him with a few punches in retaliation for his foolish actions earlier in the film. The Fool points out to Zampanó and the audience that his watch is now broken: time has stopped moving. And then he dies. Soon following his death, Gelsomina can not find it within herself to continue moving. She cries for days, forcing Zampanó to stay stagnant. When he can’t take it any longer, he leaves Gelsomina. We jump to the future. We never see her again, only hearing that she died several years prior. Fellini uses the road as a visual image of life.