Fascism has fallen, the Germans have invaded Italy, and the Allies are preparing to disembark at Anzio. Giovanni, a food wholesaler, enters Cesira’s shop in Rome and she berates him for not having brought her more provisions. He tries to court her, but she won’t hear of it and asks him to help her to get away from Rome. During an air raid, Giovanni takes advantage of Cesira’s state of turmoil by kissing her. She yields to him as a bomb falls very near and the lights fail. Cesira and Giovanni separate after the bombing ends; as far as she is concerned, nothing happened. Giovanni promises Cesira and her frightened teenage daughter Rosetta that he will take them as far as the Ciociara region the next day.
Cesira and Rosetta arrive in the remote mountain village of Sant’Eufemia. As the two women begin to bathe in a stream, they are observed by the idealistic young professor Michele, an evacuee from the bombing in the valley below. They discover Michele and he apologizes. Michele signals the peasants and displaced persons to come out of their huts to meet the pair, but they refuse to offer their hospitality. When bombing resumes in the valley, the evacuees voice their desperation at the destruction of their homes, and Michele denounces their hypocrisy for having supported war against the enemy. Rosetta falls to her knees to pray and the evacuees follow her example.
Later that winter, a wounded American soldier, John Buckley, appears begging for help. The villagers refuse; only Cesira and Michele help the man. Buckley is moved, especially by Rosetta, who reminds him of his own daughter the same age.
Having later regained his strength, Buckley resumes his escape. Rosetta will show him the footpath through the mountains. Before leaving, he gives Michele a watch and a letter to send to his family if he doesn’t survive. Buckley has assumed Cesira and Michele are married, and the surprised couple smiles incredulously and kisses.
Giovanni arrives and encounters Rosetta, who leads him to Cesira and Michele. Giovanni—now a member of the Fascist militia—jealously threatens the lovers as the villagers signal that the Germans are coming. Michele and Rosetta flee, and Cesira follows. Giovanni vows he will track Cesira to hell. Noticing Michele’s abandoned knapsack, he opens it to find the American’s letter.
Cesira, Rosetta, and Michele seek refuge at the house of a friend of Michele’s father, but a German officer—alerted by Giovanni—is waiting for them and produces Buckley’s letter, proving Michele had aided the enemy. Soldiers take Michele away, but he promises Cesira and Rosetta that he will return. Giovanni tries to persuade Cesira to return to Rome with him, but she defies him as they receive news that the Allied advance has begun in Anzio.
Cesira and Rosetta return to the now devastated Sant’Eufemia, resting in the churchyard. They are discovered by a group of Moroccan soldiers, who drag Rosetta into the ruined church and rape her. Meanwhile Michele is stood against a wall for execution and tells Giovanni that Cesira is his forever. Giovanni shoots off a burst of gun fire and Michele falls to the ground.
Rosetta and Cesira stagger out of the church, their dresses torn and Rosetta’s streaked with blood, and they collapse exhausted. Evacuees begin arriving, proclaiming the war is over. Rosetta, dazed by her experience, soon abandons herself to the celebratory music. When the dance takes an erotic turn, Cesira tries to intervene. An American jeep arrives with Giovanni, who makes a loud show of his new friendship with the Americans and offers a pair of silk stockings enticingly to Cesira. Rosetta grabs them and sensually puts them on; later she and a young boy disappear together into the dark.
Giovanni tells Cesira that Michele is dead; she furiously denounces him as a Fascist and the people turn on him. Desperate to prove his loyalty, Giovanni produces Buckley’s letter, claiming to have saved him. Buckley soon appears declaring that Michele and Cesira were his saviors.
Rosetta returns disheveled to the deserted square, insolently shrugging off her mother’s disapproval. Upon learning that Michele is dead, the stunned Rosetta falls to her knees, broken. At that moment, as if in a vision,a group of laughing children bursts onto the scene. Michele appears—smiling and consoling a boy who has fallen. Caught up in the vision, Cesira attempts to follow but stops short. Like sunlight, the memory of their loved one’s face calls them back to life as Rosetta throws herself into her mother’s arms.