Gelsomina is sold by her impoverished mother to the Gypsy Zampanò. Zampanò makes a living as a strongman and uses cruelty, both physical and emotional, to train Gelsomina as his assistant. During their travels, they become acquainted with another street entertainer, Il Matto ("The Fool"), who maliciously teases the strongman at every opportunity. After getting drenched by a pail of water, Zampanò chases after his tormentor with his knife drawn; both men are put in jail.
Il Matto is released first, and he shows Gelsomina that there are alternatives to her servitude.