Federico Fellini's La Strada begins with a half-witted woman named Gelsomina who is sold by her mother to Zampano, a traveling circus performer who entertains crowds by breaking an iron chain tightly bound across his chest. Gelsomina is played by Fellini's real wife Giulietta Masina, who brings to the character an innocence and warm naïvety. Her mannerisms, round-like clown eyes and adorable child-like facial expressions give off a "Chaplinesque" feel to the performance. Gelsomina's love and sweet innocence that the character embodies protects her from the harsh realities of the cruel world, until the murder of a 'fool' breaks down that protection and crushes her spirit forever. Zampano is a very controlling, and physically abusive man, played by the legendary actor Anthony Quinn, in probably his greatest and most powerful acting performance. The tragedy of Zampano is that he loves Gelsomina and does not know it, which is the central tragedy for many of Fellini's characters, in which they are always turning away from the warmth and safety of those who understand them.
La Strada is looked at as the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism movement which had earlier shaped Fellini with films like I Vitelloni, and Nights of Cabiria, and his later surreal like extravaganzas like La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. A lot of Catholics thought Fellini was making a sort of religious statement with the characters in La Strada. Gelsomina has a love for nature, insects and children and possesses a mystical innocent understanding of a saint. Zampano is considered the fallen human who she tries to redeem; and The Fool is the laughing tightrope artist from the heavens who has come down to give Gelsomina a purpose like the pebble; to serve and love Zampano. La Strada became an important film for director Martin Scorsese. He says in an interview on the Criterion DVD that he knew self-destructive characters like Zampano growing up as a child. Angry and violent, Zampano lashes out at the world around him making it impossible to love or be loved by another human being.