Primo (Ugo Tognazzi) owns a cheese factory in northern Italy. His bourgeois life is upended when his son Giovanni (Riki Tognazzi) is kidnapped by terrorists. Suddenly everything Primo has worked to achieve is up for grabs. The context of his life is switched, and he is hostage to events and mysteries he cannot control.

The police chief thinks that Giovanni has orchestrated his own disappearance in order to extract money from his father for left-wing anarchists. Maybe he is right. In order to meet the ransom demand, Primo must close his factory. His French wife (Anouk Aimee), his son's girlfriend (Laura Morante), and a worker-priest (Victor Cavallo) toy with him when he later tries to turn the tragedy into a triumph.

Director Bertolucci makes the ending into a puzzle and challenges the audience to see meaning in this modern day parable about "a son who dies and is reborn." The film works on in its own odd way as a political meditation on the generation gap and the "instability of the stations of men."