La Strada ★★★★½

In the space of about three months, Federico Fellini has become one of my favourite directors, which surprises me. His blend of the sexual, the surreal and the satirical could have put me right off from the get-go, and there have been aspects of his oeuvre I haven't been taken with (Juliet of the Spirits), but with every film of his I see, I seem to become more and more entranced by his vision.

Within his output, La Strada is a unique work in that it straddles the two main phases of his career: the neorealist phase (he co-wrote Rome, Open City) and the more flamboyant, "Felliniesque" (for want of a better term) one. There's a lot of visual detail that could place the film squarely within the former era - dilapidated buildings and bleak natural landscapes, mainly - but among all that are glimmers of the florid, carnivalesque leanings that went on to preoccupy the director, best seen in the key setting of the story - the circus.

La Strada tells a fairly simple tale, one that doesn't appear to have any deeper resonance for the director or for society, but still carries tremendous emotional weight. The central character is Gelsomina, an eccentric young woman whose mother sells her to the travelling strongman Zampanò, who needs an assistant for his act. Gelsomina isn't very intelligent, attractive or talented, but she is eager to do a good job; the volatile Zampanò, however, finds her annoying and demeans her. Eventually Gelsomina catches the eye of The Fool, a popular and successful circus performer, and enemy of Zampanò's. Zampanò comes to resent the value the Fool sees in the woman he has trained, and it's all downhill from there.

Giulietta Masina is utterly sublime in the lead; despite her small stature, she has a singular ability to conjure larger-than-life emotions by deftly juggling wounded vulnerability, offbeat quirkiness and irresistible joy. Anthony Quinn is perfectly cast as the thuggish, towering Zampanò, making the best of his menacing facial features (especially those piercing eyes). Richard Basehart is also strong as the Fool, and the fact that he's dubbed doesn't matter because of his striking facial nuances. Fellini's direction wraps everything in a tone that is somewhat austere but frequently lively.

It may not be quite up there with Amarcord or La Dolce Vita, but so are very few films by any director. La Strada is occasionally fanciful but consistently affecting and ultimately devastating. A highly rewarding experience that's backed up by yet another superlative Nino Rota score.

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