Cesira (Loren) is a widowed shopkeeper, raising her devoutly religious twelve-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Brown), in Rome during World War II. Following the bombing of Rome, mother and daughter flee to Cesira's native Ciociaria, a rural, mountainous province of central Italy. The night before they go, Cesira sleeps with Giovanni (Vallone), a coal dealer in her neighbourhood, who agrees to look after her store in her absence.
After they arrive at Ciociaria, Cesira attracts the attention of Michele (Belmondo), a young local intellectual with communist sympathies. Rosetta sees Michele as a father figure and develops a strong bond with him. Michele is later taken prisoner by German soldiers, who force him to act as a guide through the mountainous terrain.
After the Allies capture Rome, in June 1944, Cesira and Rosetta decide to head back to that city. On the way, the two are gang-raped inside a church by a group of Moroccan Goumiers – soldiers attached to the invading Allied Armies in Italy. Rosetta is traumatized, becoming detached and distant from her mother and no longer an innocent child.
When the two manage to find shelter at a neighbouring village, Rosetta disappears during the night, sending Cesira into a panic. She thinks Rosetta has gone to look for Michele, but later finds out that Michele was killed by the Germans. Rosetta returns, having been out with an older boy, who has given her silk stockings, despite her youth. Cesira is outraged and upset, slapping and spanking Rosetta for her behavior, but Rosetta remains unresponsive, emotionally distant. When Cesira informs Rosetta of Michele's death, Rosetta begins to cry like the little girl she had been prior to the rape. The film ends with Cesira comforting the child.
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