Directed by Federico Fellini, a strong-man performer buys a poor woman to assist his act and travel with him in his motorcycle wagon. He gives her orders and abuses her. They meet a clown in the circus who plays violin. He makes fun of the strong-man, who gets angry and fights with him; but his philosophy has an effect on the poor woman.
Children tell Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) to come because Rosa is dead. She had been working for Zampano (Anthony Quinn), and her mother urges her daughter Gelsomina to take her place. Her mother says he gave her 10,000 lire. He gives the children money to go buy some food and wine. Gelsomina says she is going to travel and learn to be a performer. She gets in the wagon on the back of Zampano’s motorcycle, and they leave.
In a town Zampano performs for people, breaking a chain with his chest. Later by the side of a road they eat. He says she never made soup before. He gives her clothes to wear. He plays a trumpet but stops her, saying to do only what he says. He gives her a drum to play. He gets a twig and hits her leg to train her. By the fire she predicts rain. She says she will sleep outside, but he tells her to get in the wagon. They sleep in their clothes.
The next day he presents a farce. He has a rifle and says he will “shunt” her. They sit down in a restaurant and dine. She asks where he is from, and he orders more wine. He summons Red and asks her to sit down for wine. He shows her his muscle and says he taught Gelsomina everything. He drives away with Red, leaving Gelsomina behind. The next day two women try to help her, and she runs to the wagon and sees Zampano asleep on the ground. When he awakes, she says she planted tomatoes. They leave.
On the road she asks if he was the same with Rosa. He advises her to keep her mouth shut. They perform at an outdoor wedding celebration, and a woman invites them to eat. Gelsomina goes inside with children to a sick boy. They ask her to entertain him, but a nun drives them out. The woman eats standing up and tells Zampano that she had two husbands. She offers him men’s clothes. They go in the bedroom and close the door.
In the barn Zampano tries on the suit, and Gelsomina cries. While he tries to sleep, she says she is leaving. She complains about him to herself and begins walking on the road. She sits by the road, and three musicians walk by playing. She follows them happily. In a town she joins a religious procession. At night people watch a tight-rope artist. The woman announcing collects money. Gelsomina sees Il Matto (Richard Basehart) get in a car and drive off. Later Zampano drives up and tells her to get in. She says she will not. He makes her get in and drives off.
The next day she comes out and meets circus people. Zampano agrees to work for tips. Il Matto laughs at Zampano, who walks away. They perform in the evening. Il Matto plays violin and clowns. Zampano with Gelsomina performs breaking the chain. Il Matto interrupts him, and angry Zampano goes after him. Gelsomina asks who he is and what he has against Zampano.
Il Matto gives Gelsomina a trombone to play, but she says Zampano says no. Il Matto asks her to interrupt his violin playing. Zampanao returns and stops her. He tells the boss he will not let her work with Il Matto, who throws water on him. Zampano chases him with a knife. The owner is angry that Zampano was arrested and fires him, but he invites her to join them. She tells Il Matto it was his fault. He urges her to leave Zampano behind. She cries and says she is sick of living. He asks what she can do and says she is ugly. He invites her to join him. When she escaped, she says Zampano slapped her around. Il Matto says everything has a purpose. She says Zampano does not think. She says the circus does not want Il Matto either. He says he is on his own. He takes her in the wagon to the police station. He says goodbye and walks away.
Zampano gets out of jail and finds Gelsomina waiting for him. He takes her to the beach. She asks which way is her home and says now her home is with him.They take a nun to her convent, and he asks to stay the night. They are allowed to stay in the barn and are fed. Gelsomina plays the trumpet with his permission. He chops wood for a nun. The nun says they both travel and can be detached.
Zampano and Gelsomina lay down and hear the rain outside. She says she wanted to leave, but now she would even marry him. He wants to sleep. Later he asks her to steal some silver hearts because his hands are too big, but she says no.
In the morning a nun asks Gelsomina if she would like to stay there. Zampano thanks the nun, and they leave. Gelsomina waves goodbye and cries. They stop, and he sees Il Matto changing a tire on his car. Zampano grabs him and hits him. She intervenes, and Il Matto says his watch is broken. He collapses, and she asks Zampano to get help. She says he is dying, and Zampano realizes he is dead. He carries the body and puts it under the bridge. Then he pushes the car off the bridge, and it catches on fire.
They travel in winter and perform in the cold. She says, “The Fool is hurt.” He stops on the road and tells her they are not suspected. He asks her if she wants to go home. She whimpers, and he says he is tired of it. He says he will sleep outside. He cooks soup over a fire, and she helps. He says she did not move for ten days. He says he is sorry he died. He wants to perform or take her home, and he says she is sick in the head. She says he killed him, but he told her to stay with him. She lays down, and he puts a blanket over her and leaves money and the trumpet with her. Then he quietly drives away.
Zampano is with the circus and goes walking. He hears a woman singing the trumpet song, and she says a crazy woman sang it there years ago. They took her in, but she only cried and would not eat. Later she thanked them and played the trumpet. Zampano performs in the circus with the chain.
At night Zampano is drunk and is told to leave. He fights and is pushed out into the street. He says he wants to be alone. He walks along the shore and sits on the sand. He is in anguish and begins sobbing.
This tragicomedy depicts a simple woman who tries to please, but she is oppressed by an angry man who insists on controlling her. When she meets a clown, she sees that the two men are in conflict; but the clown helps her to see she has a purpose in life. The death of the clown can be seen as a Christ-like sacrifice that liberates the woman from the oppressive man who suffers from his guilt.