In post-War Italy Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is sold by her very poor mother to Zampanò, an itinerant strongman.
Zampanò is a traveling showman who exhibits feats of strength by breaking a chain wrapped around his chest. He performs in village squares and then passes the hat for whatever the normally small crowd is prepared to give. He teaches Gelsomina a drum roll to introduce his act. He treats her badly, and when she tries to run away he beats her. They eventually join a small traveling circus where they meet Il Matto but a disagreement leads to tragedy.
Zampanò eventually abandons the girl and it's only many years later that he learns of her fate.
Eligio Trani was the makeup artist.