A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954) tells a fable that is simple by his later standards, but contains many of the obsessive visual trademarks that he would return to again and again: the circus, and parades, and a figure suspended between earth and sky, and one woman who is a waif and another who is a carnal monster, and of course the seashore. Like a painter with a few favorite themes, Fellini would rework these images until the end of his life.
The movie is the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful autobiographical extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work - to see the rest of his career as a long slide into self-indulgence. I don't see it that way. I think "La Strada" is part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) and "Amarcord" (1974), and to the bewitching films he made in between, like "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "Fellini's Roma" (1972).
"La Strada" is the first film that can be called entirely "Felliniesque." It is being re-released, in a restored print presented by Martin Scorsese, at a poignant moment: Fellini received an honorary Oscar at the 1993 Academy Awards, with his wife Giulietta Masina applauding tearfully in the front row. Since then, both have died.
The story is one of the most familiar in cinema. A brutish strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) tours Italy, living in a ramshackle caravan pulled by a motorcycle. He needs an assistant for his act, and from a poor widow at the seaside he purchases her slow-witted daughter Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina). He is cruel to the young woman, but she has a Chaplinesque innocence that somehow shields her from the worst of life, and she is proud of his accomplishments, such as learning to play his signature tune on a trumpet.