Fellini’s 1954 movie La strata is too straight to be considered surrealist, but it has an other worldly sense to it. It is about traveling side-show entertainers, with Zampano as a strong man and Gelsomina as his opening act. The story is told in a linear fashion from beginning to end, with Zampano as the protagonist, and probably also as the antagonist. Other characters are Gelsomina, Il Matto, the fool, and Il Signor Giraffa, the circus owner. The role of the main characters are definitely fictional, with both Zampano and Gelsomina representing old world figures that don’t really make sense in the modern world. This was post World War II Italy. A lot of things had been destroyed, and both Zampano and Gelsomina have somewhat been left adrift and are scroungers on the outskirts of society. They are travelers so the landscape plays a large part in the movie. It is bombed out from the war, and there is a subtle indication that the characters are also bombed out and do not fit into the place anymore.
La strata ends some years after Zampano has left the sweet and child-like Gelsomina to pretty much die in the cold. He runs into a family that took Gelsomina in; he learns that she died, and it ends with him crying at the beach. Zampano is a thug; he is hateful and abusive. Finally though he seems to realize that Gelsomina was the only one person that ever liked him, and that breaks him down, and he cries. The movie ends right there, at his point of realization of what he is. It is ambiguous as to what happens after that, but it would cheapen the story to give that away. Fellini had the idea that a great ending is the start of another movie.
Fellini’s movie Le notti di Cabiria,, filmed in 1957, is also about people living on the outskirts of society, and also ends on an ambiguous note. For the longest time in Europe prostitution had been legal, and people would go to brothels together, but at the time Le notti di Cabiria was made brothels had been closed down, and now the girls that had worked in the brothels had to live on their own. Cabiria is repeatedly treated badly by men she loves, and even a marriage that she had such hopes for ended up this way. Le notti di Cabiria’s ambiguous ending comes shortly after Cabiria is tricked by a second partner. This time, though, instead of her boyfriend it is her husband. They have only been married a couple of weeks and Cabiria thinks how happy they are. As the movie nears its conclusion she has offered to give Oscar, her husband, 700,000 lire, but he says he does not want it. When they are out, though, he becomes distant. They are walking near a cliff and Cabiria senses that something is wrong, that he is going to try to kill her by throwing her over a cliff, in a similar vein to what her previous boyfriend had done to her. To stop him she throws her purse at him with all her money and he takes it and abandons her. She gets herself together and starts her long walk home. As she is walking a group of young people ride by her on scooters, laughing and having fun. She starts to smile and this is where the movie ends, again leaving us in limbo without knowing what her final outcome will be, just as in La strata the last thing we see is Zampato and we do not know what his outcome will be. They each have seemed to come to some sort of conclusion about themselves. Zampato seems to realize that he was a horrible person and Gelsomina was the only who had ever cared for him, yet he treated her so badly, whereas in Le notti di Cabiria, Cabiria ends up laughing and perhaps realizes that she needs to lighten up on life, and not always fall so heavily for these ne’er-do-wells.
A bearing on both of the movies’ ambiguous endings is that both La strada and Le notti di Cabiria “employ a personal interpretation of notions of Christian redemption and grace to treat radical transformations in various protagonists” (pg 65).
Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.