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La Strada

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Federico Fellini's best films have a rambling, improvisatory feel about them, as though the director were thinking out loud and letting his camera roam, sniffing out truth in body language, evening lighting, and improbably evocative reverse tracking shots. (No one bids farewell to an image quite like Fellini.) In works like 8 ½, Fellini Roma, and I Vitelloni, he filled his frames with freaks, geeks, and tiny vignettes of varying tones and expressive impact while his talents as a cinematic memoirist refined and redefined ideas about personal cinema.

What's strange about Fellini is that two of his most well-known works, La Dolce Vita and La Strada, are two of his worst. La Strada in particular is altogether too schematic, obvious, and dull to rank among Fellini's supplest work. It's a road movie about a traveling strong man (grunting, growling Anthony Quinn) who buys a female sidekick (Giulietta Masina) to accompany him on his travels throughout post-WWII Italy, but it's also about such dubious ideas as the healing power of laughter and the cosmic significance of a pebble.

Masina's, um, enthusiastic performance is usually cited as Chaplinesque, but anyone who admires the Little Tramp will struggle to see any connection between Chaplin and the rubber-faced, asexual idiocy on display here. Something surfaces now and then about brutes who lack compassion and the simpletons who love them, but even an admirer like Martin Scorsese has checked his praise, saying of La Strada's life-is-a-carnival mood, "I don't like the circus. I have problems with it."

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