In 1939, in the Kingdom of Italy, Guido Orefice is a young Jewish man who arrives to work in the city (Arezzo, in Tuscany) where his uncle Eliseo operates a restaurant. Guido is comical and sharp, and falls in love with a girl named Dora. Later, he sees her again in the city where she is a teacher and set to be engaged to a rich, but arrogant, man, a local government official with whom Guido has regular run-ins. Guido sets up many “coincidental” incidents to show his interest in Dora. Finally, Dora sees Guido’s affection and promise, and gives in, against her better judgement. He steals her from her engagement party, on a horse, humiliating her fiancé and mother. They are later married and have a son, Giosuè, and run a bookstore.
When World War II breaks out, Guido, his uncle Eliseo, and Giosuè are seized on Giosuè’s birthday. They and many other Jews are forced onto a train and taken to a concentration camp. After confronting a guard about her husband and son, and being told there is no mistake, Dora volunteers to get on the train in order to be close to her family. However, as men and women are separated in the camp, Dora and Guido never see each other during the internment. Guido pulls off various stunts, such as using the camp’s loudspeaker to send messages—symbolic or literal—to Dora to assure her that he and their son are safe. Eliseo is executed in a gas chamber shortly after their arrival. Giosuè narrowly avoids being gassed himself as he hates to take baths and showers, and did not follow the other children when they had been ordered to enter the gas chambers and were told they were showers.
In the camp, Guido hides their true situation from his son. Guido explains to Giosuè that the camp is a complicated game in which he must perform the tasks Guido gives him. Each of the tasks will earn them points and whoever gets to one thousand points first will win a tank. He tells him that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother, or says that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys who hide from the camp guards earn extra points. Giosuè is at times reluctant to go along with the game, but Guido convinces him each time to continue. At one point Guido takes advantage of the appearance of visiting German officers and their families to show Giosuè that other children are hiding as part of the game, and he also takes advantage of a German nanny thinking Giosuè is one of her charges in order to feed him as Guido serves the German officers. Guido and Giosuè are almost found out to be prisoners by another server until Guido is found teaching all of the German children how to say “Thank you” in Italian.
Guido maintains this story right until the end when, in the chaos of shutting down the camp as the Allied forces approach, he tells his son to stay in a box until everybody has left, this being the final task in the competition before the promised tank is his. Guido goes to find Dora, but he is caught by a German soldier. An officer makes the decision to execute Guido, who is led off by the soldier. While he is walking to his death, Guido passes by Giosuè one last time and winks, still in character and playing the game. Guido is then shot and left for dead in an alleyway. The next morning, Giosuè emerges from the sweat-box, just as a US Army unit led by a Sherman tank arrives and the camp is liberated. Giosuè is overjoyed about winning the game (unaware that his father is dead), thinking that he won the tank, and an American soldier allows Giosuè to ride on the tank. While travelling to safety, Giosuè soon spots Dora in the procession leaving the camp and reunites with his mother. While the young Giosuè excitedly tells his mother about how he had won a tank, just as his father had promised, the adult Giosuè, in an overheard monologue, reminisces on the sacrifices his father made for him and his story.