Cortemaggiore, Italy, April 1962.
Italy’s public oil company, Agip, has begun extracting oil from its first domestically sourced oil field. Thus a small town of the Po Valley is becoming the symbol of the Italian “Economic Miracle”.
Enrico is one of the many young talented engineers bound to become the new elite of the country. He is a shy, introverted guy with a passion for ham radio, but his new status as a plant maintenance manager is about to burst open his horizons. Around the massive, futuristic oil refinery, the air is soaked in hope and gasoline.
Nightlife in Cortemaggiore is unpretentious yet exciting. Like his fellow co-workers, Enrico hangs out at a small dance club crammed with local girls looking for a good catch. His friend Marino is already in the arms of buxom Betty when Enrico is approached by her friend Wanda. A few hours later, by the Po River, Enrico and Wanda fantasize about their future. Wanda dreams of a big family, a shining new car and summer vacations at a beach house. Enrico nods silently, failing to reveal his true desire: a massive antenna, bigger than the one on the local Carabinieri station.
A year later, Wanda and Enrico get married in the town's main church. As they had hoped for, they move in a large, modern house, overlooked by a quad antenna. However, their marriage is unhappy. Wanda feels betrayed by her husband's lack of ambition. At a dinner party with Betty and Marino, Enrico is silent and distracted. He is not impressed by Marino’s career advancement, nor he is interested in buying a new tv set. He always brings her wife the wrong presents, he can’t even give her a baby.
After a ritual argument, Enrico retires in his home-built radio station, the only place where he can find some relief by connecting radio ham operators from all over the world. He turns on his radio, scanning the frequencies, when he suddenly hears the voice of a Russian woman, desperately crying.
Enrico manages to record the message just before the connection is lost. The next day, with the help of a fellow radio ham operator, MAB, he finds out an outstanding truth. The mysterious call did not come from a station or ship anywhere on Earth. Months before Valentina Tereshkova is acclaimed as the first woman cosmonaut, Enrico has heard the voice of Ludmila, a Soviet cosmonaut lost in space.
Ludmila is in great danger. She is orbiting around the Earth but a severe technical failure has blown her Vostok capsule off course, cutting off all contact with mission control. Enrico reveals his finding to the Italian Carabinieri, but the local bureaucracies are dumb and deaf and he is ignored. In the hope to alert the Soviet authorities, he turns to Magnani, an Italian journalist affiliated to the Communist Party. This however turns out to be the wrong move, as Enrico earns a spot on the watchlist of the Soviet secret services. In times of Cold War, the failure of a Soviet space mission must be denied at all costs.
Enrico powers up his equipment and manages to connect Ludmila regularly in the following nights, although for a few minutes, every time she flies over Cortemaggiore. The cosmonaut is desperate: her spacecraft is experiencing more and more technical problems. Failing to receive guidance from mission control, she is doomed to die in space or crash on Earth's surface. In addition, revealing her troubles to a western radio ham operator has made her a traitor to the Nation. She can no longer expect help from her own people.
Enrico promises to help her. He comforts her each and every night, so neglecting his friends, his job and even his own marriage. The cosmonaut becomes his obsession and he soon falls in love with her. In the meantime, Wanda feels alienated and lonely. Marino becomes her attentive confident and eventually a passionate lover.
While even his long-time friend MAB turns his back to him, Enrico finally manages to give an interview to the Italian television. During a live show, he claims to be in permanent contact with a Soviet cosmonaut in need for help. Although the story enjoys initial traction, Magnani's unexpected intervention ridicules Enrico and depicts him as a popularity-seeking impostor. Enrico thus realizes that Magnani is also a Soviet spy and the only one who could help Ludmila is himself alone.
Orbit after orbit, the cosmonaut is using up her oxygen and losing her residual hope. She is about to risk it all, by attempting a blind reentry to Earth, when Enrico convinces her to give him a last chance. On the basis of the Vostok's altitude, speed and position, he thinks he can find out precisely when to fire the retro-rockets to bring the capsule back to Earth safely, anywhere near Cortemaggiore. For a whole day Enrico is consumed with calculating the landing coordinates, but the following night, when he is about to send them up to Ludmila, his antenna is destroyed by Magnani.
Everything is lost. The Vostok's oxygen supply will run out long before Ludmila could cross two more times the sky over Enrico's radio station. But when MAB comes back to make up with him, he has an idea. Ludmila can attempt a reentry along a different orbit, off the Adriatic coast, a few minutes before the oxygen is up. With MAB's help, Enrico works day and night to rebuild his antenna and 24 hours later he frantically sends the new coordinates into space. This time Ludmila does not answer: she may be passed out, or be already dead. Nonetheless Enrico jumps in his car, heading to the Adriatic Sea. A few hours later he is sitting on a desert beach, anxiously waiting for the cosmonaut.
Eventually, long after the expected time, an orange parachute appears in the sky and Ludmila gently falls in the water. Enrico is filled with joy. He pulls her on a dinghy and dramatically escapes the Soviet spies on their chase.
Enrico and Ludmila end up in a motel room by the sea, where they make love for the first time. The same night, the Soviet spies break into Enrico’s beach house and kill two lovers in bed. It's a tragic mistake: Marino and Wanda are the wrong people in the wrong place. The Italian Carabinieri name Enrico as their prime suspect for the crime. They spot him in his hiding place, so spoiling his honeymoon with Ludmila. Enrico attempts a last escape, but he is soon arrested for the murder of his unfaithful wife.
In the meantime, Ludmila has disappeared. Officially, no one but Enrico has ever seen her. In prison, he wonders whether she has been captured or killed by the Soviet spies. Overwhelmed by guilt for having destroyed Wanda and Marino’s lives, as well as his own, he begins doubting whether Ludmila has ever existed at all. His lawyer convinces him to forget about the lost cosmonaut and confess his crime, in the hope of a benevolent verdict.
The trial is expedited and Enrico is found guilty. However, thanks to the old, mild Italian law on the so-called “crimes of honour”, Enrico is only sentenced to 5 years behind bars. Some months later he is sitting in his cell, when he is surprised by an unexpected visit.
Across a heavy glass barrier in the visiting room, he can barely recognize Ludmila, disguised as an Italian peasant. She is pregnant, her belly carrying Enrico’s child.