On a beach in the Indian Ocean. As every year, at this time of year diving for the precious pearls begins, and the fishermen have gathered around their leader, Zurga. With their chants they ask the gods for protection from dangers and the injustices of nature. Then Nadir appears, who left the pearl fisherman's community years ago and has since traveled the world. The returnees are happily welcomed back by everyone, especially by Zurga, with whom he has had a deep friendship since his youth. We learn that this bond threatened to break years ago when the two fell madly in love with the same unknown beauty on their last trip together. In order not to become enemies, they had decided at that time to renounce their love for this "goddess" forever. In the memory of this experience, the two men reaffirm their bond. But Nadir seems hesitant ...
A short time later: The community is waiting for the arrival of a priestess who is to sing and pray for the welfare of the pearl fishermen, to cheer the gods and to banish the evil spirits. The high priest Nourabad finally leads the veiled woman to the beach. Zurga takes the stranger's oath to live secluded and without a husband among them for the duration of their stay in order to devote themselves entirely to their task. The most precious pearl awaits her as a reward, but breaking this promise would mean her death. Nadir already knows who the veiled priestess is, he's here because of her. And she also sees him for a brief moment and is deeply shocked. Zurga, who notices her sudden panic, offers to refrain from her vows before it is too late, but she composes herself, refuses and takes the oath. The pearl fishermen call on the god Brahma before evening falls ...
Nadir is plagued by remorse. He should have confessed to Zurga that at that time he had broken his promise and had secretly met with this woman, Leïla. Since then, their forbidden love for one another has flared up. And now Nadir is betraying his friend again by following the lover all the way here. He just didn't know that Leïla had a job here that would make it life-threatening for both of them to see each other. Nadir suffers from his lovesickness and at the same time immerses himself in the idea of his love for Leïla.
Nourabad asks Leïla to exercise her office and sing high up on a rock to implore the gods to protect the pearl fishermen. Then the old man leaves her alone. She knows that not only does she sing high heaven, but she also has a secret listener, Nadir. She feels protected by him and more drawn to him than ever ...
For this night, Leïla's work is done. Nourabad takes her to a remote holy place, safely guarded, where she can sleep. He confirms that she is absolutely safe there. Leïla confides in the old man and tells him how she once experienced a very dangerous situation as a child. At the risk of her life, she saved the life of a refugee, who gave her a pearl necklace as a thank you, which she has wore ever since. Nourabad hears her story, then leaves Leïla alone.
Leïla is afraid in her loneliness, but comforts herself with the thought that her lover is somewhere out there near her. And then Nadir actually emerges from the dark! He made the impossible come true and advanced over the cliffs, past the guards, to her. At first she turned him away in shock: they could all too easily be discovered and punished with death. But love is stronger: they reciprocally confess their unconditional affection.
A thunderstorm is rising. Leïla asks Nadir to go, but he can come back to her the next night. But immediately before he leaves, the two are surprised by Nourabad, who shouts out loud and Mordio whether Leïla has broken his loyalty. Nadir escapes, but is captured by the fishermen. In the presence of the entire community, Nourabad proclaims the necessary execution of the two lovers. This is the only way to pacify the gods, whose wrath is revealed in the mighty storm that is now breaking over them.
At the last second, Zurga intervenes: With all his authority, he orders the couple's release in order to save his friend. The people submit murmuring. Only Nourabad does not want to tolerate the outrage and pulls the veil from Leila's face to expose her in front of everyone. Now Zurga realizes to his greatest horror that the stranger is the same "goddess" for whom he had competed with Nadir years ago. A holy anger flares up in him over the betrayal of his friend, and he now finally condemns Nadir and Leïla: They must die the next morning!
That same night. The storm has subsided. Zurga regrets the decision he made in anger and out of affect. His friendship with Nadir gains the upper hand, and he is ready to reverse his sentence when Leïla shows up in his tent. She wants to ask for mercy for Nadir and offers her own death as an offering. Only then does Zurga understand how much the two love each other. His own love for Leïla, which had been suppressed for years, flares up again, as does his disappointment at having been the betrayed for so long. He confesses his great love for her to the horrified Leïla and gets into such ardent jealousy that he reaffirms the death sentence for both of them, no matter how much Leïla asks for mercy for Nadir. Your contempt for Zurga now knows no bounds:
When Leïla is being led away, she takes hold of herself and finds her pride again. She hands her pearl necklace to a fisherman and asks him to bring it to her mother. Zurga recognizes in this chain the very sign of thanks that he once gave to a girl who saved him from the greatest danger. He understands who he is about to send to their death ...
The execution is to be carried out at dawn under Nourabad's supervision. The fishermen have already sung themselves into a kind of trance and can't wait for the sun to rise. The two lovers are ready to die together. Then Zurga interrupts the ceremony: what everyone thought was the dawn is actually their village, which is on fire. They should run to save their children and their belongings. The people ran away in a panic. Zurga, Leïla and Nadir are left alone. Zurga releases the lovers from their bonds. He confesses to having set the pearl fishermen's huts on fire himself. Friendship and the power of love have triumphed, Leïla and Nadir flee. Zurga is left alone. He knows he did the right thing even when his own future is uncertain.