October is Italian heritage and history month and as a way to celebrate it cinematically please take note of one of the finest Italian films of the 1960s, one which featured the first Oscar for best actress in a foreign language film. Sophia Loren starred in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women,” (“La Ciociara”) a World War II drama set in last several years of the war in Italy.
Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone in Rome in 1934. Before 1960, she made a handful of English language films in the United States co-starring with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood: Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Alan Ladd, Clark Gable and even John Wayne.
Yet, by the end of the 1950s she made a bold decision to leave Hollywood and returned to her native Italy to play the grim and rather tragic Cesira, a young widowed shop owner and mother in a completely realistic drama. De Sica, who made his early fame with his hits in the so-called Neorealist movement, “The Bicycle Thieves” (1948) and “Umberto D” (1952), was just the man to create the right “real touch” to this tale. The film’s story was taken from a novel by Alberto Moravia and adapted by Cesare Zavattini, the famed collaborator on several De Sica films, including those noted above.
The story begins in July 1943, Cesira and her 13-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) are desperately trying to escape Allied bombing in Rome. The citizens wonder what will become of their lives, how long will dictator Mussolini hold on to his power, even Pope Pius XII didn’t seem to have much to say to comfort them. So Cesira decides to close her shop’s business, asking an old friend of her husband’s, Giovanni (Raf Vallone), a local coal dealer, to look after her shop, and she and her daughter make their way by train back to her home village of Ciociara, in a province of Central Italy.
But miles from her home town, Allied bombings destroy the rails and delay the trains. Cesira decides to leave the train and walk the rest of the way to her village. Along the way they witness an enemy plane swooping down and firing upon refugees on the road, killing an old man on a bike.
Once in her home town, Cesira meets friends of her family and Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a handsome young man, who dreams of a different world after the war. Michele clearly has socialist ideals. Eventually, he falls in love with Cesira and becomes a sort of father figure to Rosetta. The more experienced Cesira has her doubts about the younger Michele, who is only 25 years old. All these rural scenes are shot in stark realistic outdoor settings without glamourous Hollywood lighting and costume touches.
As time passes the towns’ people learn of Mussolini’s arrest and imprisonment in June 1944, Allied troops capture and liberate Rome. Cesira and Rosetta begin their way back to Rome, while Michele vows to join the resistance in the hillside. Along the way, the women’s lives are further threatened by Moroccan soldiers who brutally rape both and leave Cesira in a near emotional breakdown.
Loren’s performance is strong and assertive, showing the traumatic sides of being war survivors—especially with dealing with German officials and a pair of Italian soldiers who are looking for deserters, yet sensitive and emotionally vulnerable, when she comforts her daughter after their horrible personal assault. Even the usually stoic tough guy Belmondo is effective as the thoughtful idealist who hopes for a better world.
This grim, yet powerful film, “Two Women” won Loren international respect, as she continued to make films in Hollywood and occasionally Europe. Viewers should try to avoid the more accessible dubbed version of this film; despite Loren’s own English dubbing, the rest of the voiced English is rather awful. And I always regard myself very fortunate to have heard the always elegant Ms. Loren speak in October 1990 at the Chicago International Film Festival with her husband, producer Carlo Ponti.