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A man carries a child through a shroud of fog.
We don't now what's happening, but it doesn't look very good for either of them. Before we can even start wondering about it, a narrator tells us that this story is a simple fable...but not an easy one to tell.
(Oh, and don't get too attached the narrator. It'll be a while before we hear from him again.)
Quick cut to Italy in 1939 and a total change of mood and scenery. Guido and his buddy Ferruccio are heading to the Italian city of…some city, when their car's brakes give way. While Ferruccio fixes the car, Guido visits a nearby farm and happens to (literally) catch a beautiful woman named Dora as she falls from the barn. It's boy meets girl, girl meets gravity, as we kick off this love story.
The whole first rom-com half has a madcap, slapstick quality, complete with falls, eggings, silly costumes, crazy car scenes, shocked schoolmarms, and a rather manic hero.
In the city, Guido works as a waiter for his Uncle Eliseo and learns that Dora's a teacher. He's smitten. Bad. So Guido creates situations where the two just happen to bump into each other.
During all these shenanigans, Guido and his uncle also suffer conspicuous acts of persecution because they're Jewish. Reminder: 1939 was not a good time to be Jewish in Europe (more on this when World War II breaks out).
One night, Guido tricks Dora into his car by pretending to be her boyfriend. Huh, when you write it out like that, it sounds super creepy, but let's remember that we're in Rom-Com Land here, a territory of Movieville where the line between creepy and charming blurs something bad.
Anyway, Guido and Dora decide to make the most of her kidnapping and turn it into a date. Guido's wit, humor, and extraordinary luck charms Dora, and she begins to fall for him.
So do we.
Sometime later, Dora and her boyfriend, Rodolfo—who's a total jerk, by the way—celebrate their engagement party at the same hotel where Guido works. Learning that Dora's going to marry the jerk, Guido hatches a plan to whisk her away. Riding in on his uncle's horse, Guido sweeps Dora into his arms, and they ride off into the night together.
The end…of part one.
Five or so years later, Guido and Dora are married and have a son, Joshua (Giosué in Italian). Guido now owns a bookstore, but the situation for Jews has only grown more dangerous in the intervening years.
The film kind of assumes that the viewer more or less knows what was going on during that time: The Jews of Europe were systematically being rounded up and exterminated by the Nazi regime.
On Joshua's birthday, Dora comes home to discover that Guido, Eliseo and Joshua have been taken by the government and scheduled to be sent to a concentration camp. At the train depot, the three are crowded onto the train like cattle with the other victims. Dora arrives to argue there's been a mistake, and when it's clear the soldiers won't release her family, Dora chooses to join them so they won't be separated.
At the concentration camp, Guido and Joshua are taken to the men's side of the camp, while Dora's taken to the women's side. Uncle Eliseo is determined too old to work and is taken to the gas chamber with other elderly citizens and children.
To hide their terrifying circumstances from his little son, Guido pretends that the whole affair is an elaborate game. What could possibly get a young boy to play such a horrible game? Well, says Guido, if they score 1,000 points, they win a tank. A real-life tank.
Relying on his playful nature and quick wit again, Guido manages to convince his son that every situation is part of the game. The kids who told Joshua there is no game? That's just their strategy to win. The Nazi guards who shout orders? That's so the game will be difficult. The children and men who leave and never return? That just means they're out.
Guido's pushed to his physical and mental limits keeping up the charade, but he gets a lucky break when one of the attending physicians in the camp turns out to be Dr. Lessing, a friend from his days as a waiter. Dr. Lessing arranges for Guido to be a waiter for an upcoming dinner.
Guido hopes the doctor will help him and his family escape, but Lessing's true motive is to have Guido assist him in solving a perplexing riddle. Yep, Dr. Lessing the riddle-fiend is so self-absorbed that he can't see Guido's suffering and plight when it's so plainly obvious.
One night, Guido awakens to gunfire. Bartolomeo, a fellow prisoner, thinks maybe the war is over and the Nazis are busy hiding the evidence of their crimes. Guido decides to flee. He gathers up Joshua and has him hide in a box, um, thingy. He tells his son that the game's almost over, and if he can hide until everyone else is gone, they'll win.
Joshua's faith in his father is… heartbreaking.
Guido dresses up as a woman and goes over to the women's side of the camp looking to warn Dora not to get on the train that's evacuating the inmates to certain death. Given the success of Guido's crazy schemes up until now, the viewer thinks this plan might work.
It doesn't work.
He gets caught.
A guard grabs Guido and marches him past the box where Joshua is hiding. Winking at his son (and knowing what's about to happen), Guido does a silly goose step march to give his son one last laugh. The Nazi soldier takes Guido around a corner and shoots him.
The next morning, once everyone's gone, Joshua emerges from his hiding place. As he comes out, an American tank rolls into view. Joshua thinks it's his prize for winning the game. The Americans hoist Joshua into the tank and he's overjoyed. His father was right all along.
As they come upon the prisoners of the liberated camp, Joshua spies his mother in the crowd and calls out to her from high up in the tank. Serious hugs and tears all around.
The narrator makes his grand return, revealing himself to be the adult Joshua. Joshua informs us that this is his story, a story about his father's gift to him.
The end…for reals this time.
[All of the tears.]