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The film opens at a mid-1950s press conference, where scenes are shown for an upcoming film starring Nina (Liza Minnelli), a popular screen celebrity. While on her way to the conference, Nina looks at herself in an ornate mirror, which triggers a flashback to her arrival in Rome, when she was 19 years old. Her cousin, Valentina (Tina Aumont) has arranged for her to work as a chambermaid in a dilapidated hotel. In the course of her duties, Nina meets an ailing, eccentric Senora Contessa Sanziani (Ingrid Bergman), who was once the toast of Europe. The Contessa receives a visit from her husband, Count Sanziani (Charles Boyer), from whom she has been estranged for 40 years. Old quarrels are revived and Sanziani leaves the hotel, sadly telling the manager that he does not wish to be informed if anything should happen to his wife.After having a discussion with Nina, the Contessa decides to take her under her wing and turn her into a lovely and sophisticated woman. Nina is troubled by a birthmark on her forehead, but the Contessa assures her that someday important men will be eager to press their lips to it. One evening, the Contessa summons Nina to her room and shows her a scarlet sari an Indian ambassador had once given her. She insists that Nina undress and places the sari on her. The Contessa then cuts Nina's long, dark hair and puts makeup on her and transforms the maid into a beautiful woman. Nina tells the Contessa she wishes she could be just like her, but the Contessa says that is a silly desire. While listening to the Contessa's stories, Nina imagines herself living out the Contessa's existence, triggering a series of fantasy sequences, all set in elaborate settings like casinos and Venetian palazzos. On a rare day off from work, Nina explores Rome and begins to sense the wonderful possibilities that may lay in store for her. That evening, while she is performing a task for the Contessa, the latter suffers a mental breakdown. The manager of the hotel, angered by the Contessa's wailing, insists that she must leave the hotel within a few days.The next morning, Nina seeks help from Mario (Spiros Andros), a frustrated screenwriter who lives in the hotel. She has brought with her some of the Contessa's old stock certificates, hoping that Mario will be able to determine their worth. Mario tells her the certificates are worthless and that he feels no pity for the Contessa. Nina reacts angrily and leaves his room.Later on, Nina goes to a bank and finds that Mario was very nearly right. Most of the certificates are, indeed worthless, but one, from the Bank of Congo, is worth a small fortune — ?150,000. She uses part of this money to help pay the Contessa's hotel expenses. That same day, Nina goes to a restaurant to pick up the Contessa's dinner. A screen director, Antonio Vicari (Gabriele Ferzetti) sees Nina in the restaurant and asks Mario, who is writing a screenplay for him, to introduce him to the young woman. The introduction is made, and arrangements are made for Nina to have a screen test. Before she leaves for the studio, she finds that the Contessa has abruptly checked out of the hotel to find an old flame, Gabriele d'Orazio (Orso Maria Guerrini). The Contessa is no longer thinking clearly; she hurries into the street and is hit by a car. She is taken, unconscious, to a Catholic charity hospital. Meanwhile, Nina has difficulties with her screen test, until Mario gets her to talk about the Contessa. Her subsequent show of passion impresses Vicari, who decides he wants Nina to star in his next picture. Nina hurries off the set, and after a search, she and Mario locate the hospital where the Contessa is under Sister Pia's (Isabella Rossellini) care. Nina is taken to the Contessa's bedside, but the old woman has just died. Deeply saddened, Nina takes the Contessa's ornate mirror as a remembrance and leaves the hospital.The film jumps forward to the present time. Nina has become a motion picture star. She arrives at the press conference. As she steps out of her limousine, a girl hurries up and says she wants to be just like Nina when she grows up.