Gelsomina (Masina) is a slow-witted peasant girl whose sister Rosa left some time in the backstory, to work with strongman Zampanò (Quinn) as part of his traveling strongman act. The film begins with Zampanò's return to Gelsomina's home following the death of Rosa. Gelsomina's mother literally sells her to Zampanò as a replacement. Gelsomina is then left in a grim existence with the brutish, physically abusive Zampanò, working as the clown in Zampanò's act. Her only friend is "The Fool", a clown and high-wire performer who delights in antagonizing the humorless, thuggish Zampanò.
La Strada won the first competitive Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (prior awards had been honorary). Fellini described it as "my most representative film".
- Accidental Murder / I Didn't Mean to Kill Him: Zampanò only punches The Fool a few times, but after all, he is the strongman. He tries to explain to Gelsomina that he didn't mean to do it, but it doesn't help.
- Book-Ends: In the first scene, Gelsomina is gathering reeds on the beach. In the last scene, Zampanò is weeping on a beach somewhere after finding out that Gelsomina is dead.
- Breaking the Bonds: This is the highlight of Zampanò's act. He ties a metal chain around his chest, and then breaks it by expanding his muscles.
- Broken Bird: Gelsomina is shattered after Zampanò accidentally kills The Fool, unable to perform the act, recoiling from contact with Zampanò, crying and mourning that "The Fool is hurt".
- Comforting Comforter: Subverted when Zampanò covers a sleeping Gelsomina with a blanket, then abandons her by the side of the road.
- Death by Despair: Apparently what happened to Gelsomina after The Fool died, as told to Zampanò. she wouldn't eat, and just sat around until she died.
- Downer Ending: Gelsomina dies. Zampanò is left broken and alone.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Zampanò gets roaring drunk after finding out that Gelsomina is dead.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: Zampanò pushes a car off a bridge. It falls maybe ten feet. It bursts into flames. (The "whoosh" of the explosive charge is clearly audible.)
- Foreshadowing: The Fool says he's going to die young. Ostensibly it's because of his tightrope stunts, but actually Zampano kills him first.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Zampanò, particularly when he's been drinking. It gets him in trouble many times over the course of the film.
- Hong Kong Dub: As was typical for Italian films at the time, it was shot without sound and the dialogue was dubbed in later. Neither Quinn (a Mexican-American) or Richard Basehart (an American, playing The Fool) spoke Italian, so they just spoke English during filming, while Masina and the others spoke Italian. None of it is dubbed very well.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Gelsomina comes off as slightly mentally challenged. Her mother says "she just came out a little strange."
- Leitmotif: Gelsomina's song, which she plays on the trumpet.
- Love Martyr: Despite Zampanò's cruel, brutish, abusive ways, Gelsomina falls in love with him, offering to stay with him and marry him because no one else will.
- Love Redeems: Gelsomina's love and her tragic death seems to have redeemed Zampanò from beyond the grave.
- Mathematician's AnswerGelsomina: Where are you from?
Zampanò: My home town.
Gelsomina: You don't talk like us. Where were you born?
Zampanò: My father's house.
- No Name Given: The Fool's real name is never mentioned.
- Non-Ironic Clown: Gelsomina is the clown and comic relief in Zampanò's act. The Fool is also a working clown.
- One Head Taller: The hulking Zampanò dwarfs tiny little Gelsomina.
- Pet the Dog: Zampanò is abusive towards Gelsomina, but at one point displays a hint of playful friendliness towards her when he's buying clothes off of a widow.
- Sad Clown: Gelsomina, especially after The Fool dies.
- Sanity Slippage: The weight of The Fool's death causes Gelsomina to become emotionally blunt.
- Shipper on Deck: The Fool encourages Gelsomina to stick with Zampanò.
- Smoking Is Cool: Invoked in The Fool's introduction, when he has a cigarette jammed in the frets of his violin. He pauses, takes a drag, sticks the cigarette back in between the frets, and starts playing again.
- A Taste of the Lash: When Gelsomina is slow to pick up the routine that Zampanò is trying to teach her, he picks up a switch and lashes her legs with it.
- Time Skip: "Four or five years" between Zampanò abandoning Gelsomina and discovering her fate.
- Troll: The Fool, no matter how many times Zampanò threatens his life in response, can't help but always mock him whenever they run into each other.
- Untranslated Title: "The Road".
- Would Hit a Girl: Zampanò is physically abusive to Gelsomina.