A young woman named Rosa left her family to become the assistant to a sideshow strong man named Zampano. Upon Rosa’s recent death, Zampano returned to the Rosa’s family to see about making the same deal for her sister Gelsomina. In return for 10,000 lire, Gelsomina’s mother turns her daughter over the circus performer and watches as the two depart the very day.
Zampano makes his living on the streets by performing acts of strength in front of crowds such as breaking an iron chain across his expansive chest and then waiting for the tips to be placed in the hat that is passed around. Zampano’s nature is that of a rather frightening brute while Gelsomina quickly develops into the perfect partner due to her lighthearted and innocent character. Ultimately, he teaches her how to incorporate a snare drum and trumpet into the act which requires her to dance a little and clown a little. Gelsomina is a trusting and naïve soul, but she genuinely enjoys performing for the crowds and interacting with Zampano. Nevertheless, the brute nature of the strong man is one that always resorts to intimidation and even frightening coercion to keep Gelsomina under his thumb. At one he leaves her stranded in the street as he enjoys a tryst with another woman and later he uses a switch from a tree to whip her as punishment for getting her lines wrong.
Such tactics prove to have the opposite effect of those intended as Zampano’s constant displays of cruelty finally results in a rebellion by Gelsomina and the decision to leave the act. This decision puts her on the road which leads to town and ultimately to Il Matto, a high wire clown. Zampano tracks her down and forces her to back. They soon join a traveling circus that just so happens to employ Il Matto. For reasons he is not fully conscious of, Il Matto cannot seem to stop from taunting Zampano for his demonstrations of mindlessness. Finally having enough after being soaked with water from a pail Il Matto throws over him, Zampano reaches for his knife and chases after the clown. Zampano is temporarily jailed, but both are permanently fired from the circus.
When the strong man is freed from jail, Il Matto politely suggest to Gelsomina that perhaps she has other options besides putting up with Zampano’s brutality. His imparts his own personal philosophy which suggest that everything on earth—people, animals and even inanimate objects—exists for a specific and particular purpose. In a telling moment, a nun draws a comparison between her own purpose in serving god and Gelsomina’s purpose with Zampano. She goes to the strong man with a proposal of marriage, but is rejected.
Strong man and clown come to one final confrontation when Il Matto is addressing a flat tire by the side of the road. Gelsomina is aghast at the sight of Zampano violently striking Il Matto on his head over and over again. The clown’s last moment of lucidity is to observe that his watch is broken. He then slump over as mortality takes leave. Zampano has no choice but to push the car off the road where it finally stops in a fiery crash after he has concealed the clown’s body.
The murder of Il Matto has also resulted in the murder of the lively spirit which made Gelsomina so popular with crowds. After ten days pass without any life coming back into her eyes, Zampano leaves her for good when she takes one of her nap. He leaves behind only some clothing, the trumpet and little money.
Years afterward, Zampano is struck by the sound of a woman singing a song that Gelsomina liked to play. It turns out that this woman’s father discovered Gelsomina on a beach one day and out of pity for her looks and manner, took her in and cared for her. Nevertheless, she died soon afterward. A drunk Zampano leaves the woman and heads toward the beach where he finally beings to cry.