Jesus included the socially marginal in his ministry. Modern middle-class believers often find it difficult to follow his example because the behavioral norms of society's outcasts are very different from those whose lifestyle is more secure.

Italian director Federico Fellini's 1954 masterpiece, La Strada, is set entirely in the marginal world of vagabond circus artists, and it persuades us that they too can achieve virtue. Without permanent homes, they're poor by any standards, not knowing how they will eat or where they will sleep from day to day. Fellini shows how feelings such as love, loyalty, and trust are essential to their survival in ways not necessary in more comfortable middle-class surroundings.

Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a young woman, not quite right in the head, who's sold to an itinerant strongman, Zampano (Anthony Quinn), for 10,000 lira. Her family lives on the beach in extreme poverty, and the money will feed and clothe them for several months. Zampano is not a kind master.

“You can teach her a trade,” Gelsomina's mother points out.

“Sure, I can teach even dogs,” he replies. Zampano moves from village to village in a beaten up caravan, performing his strongman act on his own. While training Gelsomina to accompany him, he beats her.

An unusually sensitive woman, she's more downcast at being humiliated than hurt from the pain, but she's also possessed with a sunny spirit that helps her bounce back. She sports a black derby and clowns her way in a Chaplinesque fashion through Zampano's dark moods. Children immediately bond with her, sensing the goodness in her heart. Slowly she develops a deep loyalty to the strongman and tries her best to love him the same way she does everyone else.

To achieve economic security, Zampano attaches himself to a small circus. Among the other performers are a tight-rope walker and acrobat called the Fool (Richard Basehart). Like Gelsomina, he's a natural clown, and the two become soul mates.

Zampano is jealous of their platonic friendship and attacks the acrobat with a knife. When the strongman is thrown in jail, the circus fires all parties concerned and leaves town. Gelsomina waits until Zampano is released.

Back on the road, she and the strongman give a lift to a nun who invites them to stay at her convent The sister praises their vagabond way of life because it prevents them from becoming too attached to worldly things. For similar reasons, her order makes its nuns move to a new convent every two years.

Gelsomina is attracted to the religious life but declines an offer to stay longer at the convent. Much to her horror, while she and the nun have been talking, Zampano has been trying to figure out how to steal some silver medals on display.

While traveling on a country lane, he and Gelsomina run into the Fool, who has a flat tire. As always, the clowning acrobat teases the strongman who retaliates by beating him up. The Fool unexpectedly dies from the blows. Rather than report the accident to authorities, Zampano flees after hiding the body and the car.

Gelsomina is sick with grief. She lapses into a depression that lasts for weeks. The story takes some tragic turns, but Fellini and screenwriter Tullio Pinelli show how the strength of Gelsomina's loyalty transforms the strongman's heart. Her love for him isn't romantic in the conventional sense. Gelsomina tries to serve him with the same spirit of self-sacrifice she displays with all the others in her life.

Their vagabond way of life prevents them from becoming too attached to worldly things.

The film's magic springs from more than its episodic story line. Fellini recreates the textures of rural Italian life in memorable ways. When Gelsomina unexpectedly is swept along by a procession honoring the Virgin Mary, the intensity of its sights and sounds turns the event into a genuine religious experience. Later in a tableau of austere beauty, she and Zampano camp out amid a row of ruined stone houses surrounded by snow. The action is also interrupted from time to time by a haunting melody she plays on her trumpet.

La Strada shows how life can be uplifting in times of struggle and sadness, even among the poor and socially marginal. Its stark, melancholy images stick in the mind long after the movie has ended.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

Next week: Alain Cavalier's Therese.