The carnival strongman decides to use Gelsomina as his assistant. He teaches her a drum roll and trumpet tune to announce his act, made up like a clown. Although he introduces her to others as his wife, in fact she is no more than his slave. The innocent and childlike woman does everything he asks, without resistance, but even the smallest mistake makes him violent and abusive. He lashes her with a tree branch, abandons her when he feels like it and forces her to steal from a convent where they spend the night during a storm. Yet, she never complains - she truly is a pure and naive character without any malice.
They eventually join a small traveling circus where they meet Il Matto, "The Fool" (Richard Basehart), a high-wire artist whose tenderness towards Gelsomina enrages Zampano - especially when he is taunted for his jealousy. A fist fight between the two men leaves Zampano for a while in jail. Although Il Matto gives up Gelsomina, Zampano can't control his rage. In the end, tragedy arrives when Zampano attacks Il Matto on a lonely road and kills him.
This causes everything to fall apart. Gelsomina goes mad. As she is no use to him anymore, and only serves to remind him of his foul deed, Zampano simply abandons her on the road, in a cold and deserted landscape. In an apotheosis, we see how a few years later he comes across a young woman who is humming the song that Gelsomina used to sing. Gelsomina herself has died. Plagued by his conscience, Zampano finally breaks down in defeat. As Roger Ebert says: His tragedy was that he loved Gelsomina but never realized it.
The film is in fact a type of road movie that shows the byways and backwaters of Italy where we are taken by Zapano's small truck, from the lonely seashore to the snowy mountains. This is accompanied by a haunting musical score by Nino Rota which lifts the film out of its sordid surroundings.
The acting is excellent all around - Giulietta Masina is perfect - not to say uncanny - as Gelsomina. It is also the best role Anthony Quinn ever played.
The film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival of 1954 as well as the Academy Award 1956 for Best Foreign Language Film.
My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the round Chaplinesque eyes of Giulietta Masina.
Ebert; Criterion essay; Criterion Confessions.