"A deceptively simple and poetic parable, Federico Fellini's La Strada was the focus of a critical debate when it premiered in 1954 simply because it marked Fellini's break with neorealism -- the hard-knocks school that had dominated Italy's postwar cinema."Rita Kempley, Washington Post.
Tullio Cicciarelli of Il Lavoro nuovo saw the film as "an unfinished poem," left unfinished deliberately by the filmmaker for fear that "its essence be lost in the callousness of critical definition, or in the ambiguity of classification," while Ermanno Continin of Il Secolo XIX praised Fellini as "a master story-teller":
The narrative is light and harmonious, drawing its essence, resilience, uniformity and purpose from small details, subtle annotations and soft tones that slip naturally into the humble plot of a story apparently void of action. But how much meaning, how much ferment enrich this apparent simplicity. It is all there although not always clearly evident, not always interpreted with full poetical and human eloquence: it is suggested with considerable delicacy and sustained by a subtle emotive force.
Others saw it differently. When the 1954 Venice Film Festival jury awarded La Strada the Silver Lion while ignoring Luchino Visconti's Senso, a physical brawl broke out when Visconti's assistant Franco Zeffirelli started blowing a whistle during Fellini's acceptance speech, only to be attacked by Moraldo Rossi. The disturbance left Fellini pale and shaken and Masina in tears. Marxist critics such as Guido Aristarco rejected the film on ideological grounds, particularly objecting to what they considered Christian notions of conversion and redemption: "We don't say, nor have we ever said, that La Strada is a badly directed and acted film. We have declared, and do declare, that it is wrong; its perspective is wrong."
The Venice premiere began "in an inexplicably chilly atmosphere," according to Tino Ranieri, and "the audience, who rather disliked it as the screening began, seemed to change opinion slightly toward the end, yet the movie didn't receive—in any sense of the word—the response that it deserved."
Reviewing for Corriere della Sera, Arturo Lanocita argued that the film "gives the impression of being a rough copy that merely hints at the main points of the story ... Fellini seems to have preferred shadow where marked contrast would have been more effective." Nino Ghelli of Bianco e Nero regretted that after "an excellent beginning, the style of the film remains harmonious for some time until the moment when the two main characters are separated, at which point the tone becomes increasingly artificial and literary, the pace increasingly fragmentary and incoherent."
Fellini biographer Tullio Kezich observed that Italian critics "make every effort to find faults with [Fellini's] movie after the opening in Venice. Some say that it starts out okay but then the story completely unravels. Others recognize the pathos in the end, but don't like the first half."
Its French release the next year found a warmer reception. Dominique Aubier of Cahiers du cinéma thought La Strada belonged to "the mythological class, a class intended to captivate the critics more perhaps than the general public." Aubier concluded:
Fellini attains a summit rarely reached by other film directors: style at the service of the artist's mythological universe. This example once more proves that the cinema has less need of technicians—there are too many already—than of creative intelligence. To create such a film, the author must have had not only a considerable gift for expression but also a deep understanding of certain spiritual problems.
In his March 1955 review for Arts magazine, Jean Aurel cited Giulietta Masina's performance as "directly inspired by the best in Chaplin, but with a freshness and sense of timing that seem to have been invented for this film alone." He found the film "bitter, yet full of hope. A lot like life." Louis Chauvet of Le Figaro noted that "the atmosphere of the drama" was combined "with a visual strength that has rarely been equalled." For André Bazin, influential film critic and theorist, Fellini's approach was
the very opposite of psychological realism that maintains analysis followed by the description of feelings. In this quasi-Shakespearean universe, however, anything can happen. Gelsomina and the Fool carry an aura of the marvellous around with them, which confuses and irritates Zampano, but this quality is neither supernatural nor gratuitous, nor even poetic, it appears as a quality possible in nature.
The film should be accepted for its strange fragility and its often too colourful, almost artificial moments, or else totally rejected. If we try to analyze Fellini's film, its fragmentary quality becomes immediately evident and we are obliged to treat each fragment, each personal comment, each secret confession separately.
Critical reaction in the UK and the US was equally mixed, with disparaging reviews appearing in Films in Review ("the quagmire of cheap melodrama"), Sight and Sound ("a director striving to be a poet when he is not") and The Times of London ("realism crowing on a dung-hill."), while more favorable assessments were provided by Newsweek ("novel and arguable") and Saturday Review ("With La Strada Fellini takes his place as the true successor to Rossellini and De Sica."). In his 1956 New York Times review, A.H. Weiler was especially complimentary of Quinn: "Anthony Quinn is excellent as the growling, monosyllabic and apparently ruthless strong man, whose tastes are primitive and immediate. But his characterization is sensitively developed so that his innate loneliness shows through the chinks of his rough exterior." 
In a 1957 interview, Fellini reported that Masina had received over a thousand letters from abandoned women whose husbands had returned to them after seeing the film and that she had also heard from many people with disabilities who had gained a new sense of self-worth after viewing the film: "Such letters come from all over the world".
In later years, Fellini explained that from "a sentimental point of view," he was "most attached" to La Strada: "Above all, because I feel that it is my most representative film, the one that is the most autobiographical; for both personal and sentimental reasons, because it is the film that I had the greatest trouble in realizing and that gave me the most difficulty when it came time to find a producer." Of all the imaginary beings he had brought to the screen, Fellini felt closest to the three principals of La Strada, "especially Zampano." Anthony Quinn found working for Fellini invaluable: "He drove me mercilessly, making me do scene after scene over and over again until he got what he wanted. I learned more about film acting in three months with Fellini than I'd learned in all the movies I'd made before then." Long afterwards, in 1990, Quinn sent a note to the director and his co-star: "The two of you are the highest point in my life -- Antonio."
Critic Roger Ebert, in his book The Great Movies, has described the current critical consensus as holding that La Strada was the high point of Fellini's career and that, after this film, "his work ran wild through the jungles of Freudian, Christian, sexual and autobiographical excess". (Ebert, himself, disagrees, seeing La Strada as "part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) and "Amarcord" (1974)".)
The years since its initial release have solidified the high estimation of La Strada. It holds a 97% rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes from 31 reviewers who, on average, scored it 8.7 on a scale of 10. Its numerous appearances on lists of best films include the 1992 Directors' poll of the British Film Institute (4th best), the New York Times "Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made", and the "Greatest Films" list of "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They" (# 67).
In 1995, the Catholic Church's Pontifical Commission for Social Communications issued a list of 45 films representing a "cross section of outstanding films, chosen by a committee of twelve international movie scholars". This has come to be known as the "Vatican film list", and includes La Strada as one of 15 films in the sub-category labeled "art". Pope Francis, has said it is "the movie that perhaps I loved the most", because of his personal identification with its implicit reference to his namesake, Francis of Assisi.