The film covers events from 1938 to 1943 in the town of Ferrara. At the start of the film Fascist Italy, prior to this date not at all anti-Semitic, has followed the lead of Benito Mussolini's German masters and passed anti-Jewish race laws. Since the Jews of Ferrara are no longer allowed to play tennis in the local tennis club, they go to the home of the Finzi-Continis. The Finzi-Continis are an absurdly wealthy family living in an enormous mansion, on an estate that is protected by high walls and boasts spacious gardens as well as a tennis court. Their great wealth and high walls insulate them from the gradually deteriorating conditions of life for Italy's Jews.
Giorgio is the son of a middle-class Jewish family, long friends of the Finzi-Continis; he plays tennis on their court and studies with the Finzi-Contini patriarch, a professor. Giorgio is desperately in love with Micol Finzi-Contini, the professor's dazzlingly beautiful daughter and his friend since childhood, but her feelings towards him are more ambiguous. Persons in their social circle include Micol's brother Alberto, Giorgio's brother Alberto, another local Jew named Lattes, and Bruno Malnate, who is a Gentile but an anti-fascist.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Micol rejects polite, gentlemanly Giorgio, and has sex with Bruno, the brash young man who talks about how much he likes sluts.
- Day of the Jackboot: The jackboot has already been on Italy's neck for 16 years or so, but this film depicts the point at which it turned against Italy's Jews.
- Downer Ending: And how. The Finzi-Continis are rounded up along with Giorgio's father. In Real Life almost all the Jews of Ferrara that were arrested died in the Holocaust.
- The Film of the Book: From a novel by Giorgio Bassani, a Jew from Ferrara whose father was rounded up and sent to his death in a German camp. Bassani was so angry at the film for certain changes (one was making Micol's and Bruno's relationship explicit) that he had his name removed from the screenplay credit.
- Flashback: Multiple flashbacks showing the childhood friendship of Giorgio and Micol.
- Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Giorgio's parents sometimes speak in French when they don't want the maid to know what they're saying.
- I Don't Want to Ruin Our Friendship: Although the real reason is that Micol simply doesn't find Giorgio attractive.
- Impairment Shot: As Alberto is dying of...something (TB?), the POV shot occasionally goes out of focus.
- Intro Dump: Giorgio is introduced to several of the other characters when entering the garden at the start of the movie.
- Just Friends: Giorgio and Micol, much to his displeasure, due to her utter lack of romantic interest in him.
- My Girl Is a Slut: Bruno says he likes his girlfriend Gladys precisely because she is so slutty.
- Ouija Board: The friends play a variant with a wine glass and letters arranged in a circle. The glass predicts the coming of war.
- The Peeping Tom: Giorgio does this when he sees Micol fleeing across the grounds of the garden, follows her, and looks through a window to see her in the aftermath of sex with Bruno.
- Punch-Clock Villain: The library manager who casually tosses Giorgio out, blaming it on regulations, while having the gall to ask how Giorgio's poetry is coming along.
- Selective Obliviousness: For a long time Giorgio's father, who was himself a fascist before Italian fascism turned anti-Semitic, simply refuses to acknowledge how bad things are getting for Italy's Jews.
- Sexy Soaked Shirt: Micol's white blouse hides nothing after she and Giorgio are caught in the rain. Sex almost follows, but she stops it for reasons that later become clear.
- Shameless Fanservice Girl: When Micol catches Giorgio peeping on her and Bruno, she deliberately exposes her breasts.
- State Sec: OVRA, the Fascist secret police that are rounding up Jews at the end of the movie.
- Stock Footage: In a couple of scenes characters are shown watching newsreels of fascist rallies and, later, combat.
- Train-Station Goodbye: Giorgio bids Alberto goodbye when Alberto goes to France to study.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: So, did Giorgio escape? The source novel reveals that yes, he did.