Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) lives with her impoverished family by the Italian seaside. Her father abandoned them some time ago, so her elderly mother is struggling to clothe and feed Gelsomina and her four younger siblings. Her elder sister, Rosa, left a year ago with Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a strongman and street performer, who has now returned and offered 10,000 lire and some food in exchange for Gelsomina. Her mother accepts, revealing both desperation and relief, and so Zampanò and Gelsomina leave the same day, taking to the road in his makeshift truck, a covered wagon pulled by motorcycle.
Zampanò is a bully and a brute. He is also something of a Lothario. On their first night together he roughly tosses Gelsomina into the bed of his truck and has his way with her. The very next night he picks up a woman at a local cafe and they take off, leaving Gelsomina to wait for him by the side of the road. As a strongman, he is a charlatan, relying more on showmanship than genuine strength. His claims to being an “artist” are also a sham.
Gelsomina, meanwhile, is a simpleton, a naif. And even before she puts on makeup to play her part in Zampanò’s farce, we can tell that she’s a clown. Giulietta Masina’s performance is La Strada’s heart. She has a round face with perpetually wide eyes and expressive lips. Her ongoing pantomime for the camera suggests the physical vocabulary of a silent film actor; I doubt I’m the first to see shades of Charlie Chaplin in her performance here. (This is reinforced by the fact that La Strada, like many films of its time, was shot without sound, which was recorded after the fact.) Despite her innocence and vitality, Gelsomina is a tragic heroine.
After enduring Zampanò’s abuse for some time, Gelsomina decides to leave him and she takes to the road on her own. It’s during this time that she first crosses paths with The Fool (Richard Baseheart), another performer, fond of acrobatics and light slapstick, as his name suggests. In comparison to Zampanò, The Fool is more refined and more like Gelsomina, who recognizes in him something perhaps more like her, certainly something more artistic and more whimsical than what she is made to suffer with Zampanò.
But Zampanò soon finds Gelsomina, whom he clearly regards as his property, and forces her back out on the road with him. When the two of them end up in Rome, the newest members of the circus, we meet The Fool again, only to find out that he and Zampanò are rivals. Angry and insecure – and instigated by The Fool – Zampanò tries to violently assault his antagonist, and the two men are exiled from their family of traveling performers.
This leaves Gelsomina to decide for herself what path to take: continue with Zampanò, take up with The Fool, or leave them both behind and take shelter of the circus. As the story has so far established, clearly banking on the love triangle it’s been assembling, the circus is never really an option for Gelsomina, so she must choose between The Fool and The Bully. We may wish to campaign against Zampanò, knowing what we know about him, but it quickly becomes clear that The Fool isn’t any better for Gelsomina. Baseheart’s portrayal of The Fool suggests the charisma of Danny Kaye, but without any of the humility. The Fool is an insufferable egomaniac, and he’s no more compassionate toward Gelsomina than Zampanò. In fact, whereas Zampanò is physically abusive, The Fool is verbally so, and so we may find ourselves wishing that Gelsomina reject both men and strike out on her own.
But this is not that sort of movie. In La Strada no one will be walking into the sunset, alone or otherwise. It paints a rather stark picture of life in post-war Italy, in which hardship is the norm. Consider Gelsomina’s sister, Rosa. When Zampanò arrives to purchase Gelsomina, there is no discussion about how Rosa might have died. And though Gelsomina tries from time to time, she is unable to learn from Zampanò anything about her sister’s life with him. It is in a certain sense inconsequential. We’re shown more than enough of Zampanò to know what life was like for Rosa. Her life, just like the life of her sister, and Zampanò, and everyone else we see onscreen, was hard and dirty and largely without reward.
In the end, Gelsomina is unable to cope with her ordeal and is abandoned by Zampanò, to die alone. Her only solace, if that is what it is, is the dignity she earns from following the guiding principle she’s adopted from The Fool: every pebble has a purpose. Her purpose? To remain with Zampanò, in spite of him, in spite of herself. As she says of him, “If I don’t stay with you, who will?” She will, unfortunately for her, suffer for this loyalty, no matter what reward it wins her.