There’s a well-worn Brian Eno quote about the Velvet Underground’s first album: that only thirty thousand people bought it, but every one of them formed a band. That seems analogous to the paradigm-shifting effect of La strada’s release. Not long after the movie opened stateside at the now-demolished Trans-Lux theater on Fifty-Second Street in New York, in the summer of 1956 (following a 1954 Italian premiere), a generation of American filmmakers, critics, and moviegoers finally took notice of an Italian director whose first three movies—Variety Lights (1950, codirected with Alberto Lattuada), The White Sheik (1952), and I vitelloni (1953)—were well-liked enough but had never caught fire in the United States. As the New York Times put it then: “Fellini’s talents as a director have not been displayed to advantage heretofore in these parts.”
La strada is the movie that changed that. Bob Dylan would later credit the film as one inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man” (and many of his other songs seem to contain similar references); so, too, did Kris Kristofferson for his “Me and Bobby McGee”—both musicians transfixed by the film’s sorrowful vagabond spirit. Directors as diverse as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Akira Kurosawa, and Martin Scorsese have said that seeing the film at the time of its release had an enormous impact on them, not only directly but also as an indicator of a sea change in what cinematic art could achieve.
While Fellini’s previous films began to pencil in his worldview, La strada’s perspective is drawn in ink. It doesn’t feel like an experiment, or playful in the autobiographical manner of I vitelloni; it is a vision that blooms as an allegory. A film of despair and optimism, cruelty and salvation, and its own clandestine sense of humor, La strada contains philosophical and spiritual dimensions, and a unified visual poetry, that qualify it as Fellini’s first masterpiece.