Scene I – Cesira’s Shop in the Trastevere District of Rome, near the end of 1943:
The beautiful shopkeeper Cesira, a widow, is dealing with customers. Giovanni, a food wholesaler, enters and makes a pass at her. She refuses and asks him to help her flee Rome.
As air-raid sirens sound, Giovanni kisses her. She yields to him as bombs fall. When the all-clear sounds, Cesira assures Giovanni that what happened means nothing. As Cesira’s daughter, Rosetta, comes up from the cellar, Giovanni agrees that he will take them as far as the village of Fondi in the Ciociaria region the next day. Cesira promises her frightened daughter that they will soon be safe in the mountains.
Scene II – The Mountain Village of Sant’Eufemia.
Tired and dusty, Cesira and Rosetta begin to bathe in a fountain, observed by Michele, a young pacifist. They discover Michele and Cesira tells him that she and her daughter are seeking accommodations. Cesira coarsely negotiates for shelter with the displaced peasants. When airplanes bomb the village below, Rosetta kneels to pray and the evacuees join her.
Scene III – The Mountain, winter, three months later
An American soldier, John Buckley, appears begging for help and the villagers refuse, remembering the Germans’ edict: anyone who helps the enemy will be shot. Surprisingly Cesira joins Michele in helping the soldier. Buckley is taken with Rosetta and says their family reminds him of his, which amuses Cesira and Michele. Left alone, they kiss.
Giovanni, now a member of the Fascist party, arrives at the village and encounters Rosetta, who tells Giovanni about Michele and how they saved the American. They see Michele and Cesira kissing in an embrace. Giovanni becomes furious and accuses Cesira of treason. Suddenly they hear the signal that the Nazis are coming. Cesira tells Michele and Rosetta to flee. Giovanni furiously vows to track Cesira to hell. Noticing Michele’s abandoned knapsack, he opens it to find a letter from Buckley.
Scene I. Fondi, a lawyer’s house.
Cesira, Rosetta, and Michele seek refuge at the house of the lawyer Sciortino, a friend of Michele’s father. But a German officer—alerted by Giovanni—is waiting for them and produces Buckley’s letter, proving he was harbored. Giovanni enters with Michele’s rucksack as proof of his aid to 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 refuses. Sciortino rushes in with news from the radio: the Allied advance has begun at Anzio. Giovanni departs saying “I’ll save myself, and God save us all.” Cesira and Rosetta begin the trek back to Sant’Eufemia.
Scene II. A church at Sant’Eufemia.
Cesira and Rosetta arrive at the now devastated village and rest in the churchyard, as Michele appears in handcuffs and is left with Giovanni.
Cesira and Rosetta are discovered by a group of menacing Moroccan soldiers, part of the French army who landed with the Allies. They drag Rosetta screaming into the ruined church. Giovanni cunningly offers to let Michele escape if he gives Cesira up, but Michele defies him and dreamily recalls their first kiss. Giovanni furiously orders him to be silent, but Michele goes on about his love and Giovanni shoots off a burst of gun fire; Michele falls dead.
Rosetta and Cesira stagger out of the church, their dresses torn and Rosetta’s legs are streaked with blood. Cesira does her best to comfort the girl, but Rosetta is expressionless.
Scene III. Sant’Eufemia
The square quickly fills with dancing as evaucees proclaim the war is over. Cesira tries to intervene between a man dancing with Rosetta. An American jeep arrives with some soldiers and Giovanni. Giovanni begins to dance with Rosetta, who ignores her mother’s protests. Rosetta and a boy disappear together into the dark.
When Giovanni tells her Michele is dead, Cesira furiously denounces him as a Fascist and the people turn on him. Desperate to prove his loyalty to the Americans, Giovanni produces Buckley’s letter and claims to have saved him. At that moment Buckley appears, declaring that Michele and Cesira were his saviors. Giovanni fiercly defends his actions, but the crowd attacks. Cesira asks Buckley to arrest Giovanni; soldiers lead him away.
Rosetta shrugs off her mother, deriding unrealistic dreamers like Michele. Upon learning that he is dead, Rosetta falls to her knees, broken.
At that moment, as if in a vision,a group of laughing children bursts onto the scene. A boy falls and hurts his knee. In the vision, Michele appears, and kindly leads the boy off. Caught up in the vision, Cesira attempts to follow but stops short. Tenderly she tells her daughter that they are blooms amid nothingness, and Rosetta throws herself into her mother’s arms.