Vittorio De Sica’s wartime drama La ciociara (Two Women, 1960) had a decidedly peculiar genesis. Adapted from a 1957 novel by Alberto Moravia, with a script by De Sica’s long-time collaborator Cesare Zavattini, the film was based on real-life events that took place in Italy in 1943 – later dubbed the Marocchinate – in which Moroccan troops of the French Expeditionary Corps embarked on a wave of mass rapes and murders while supposedly serving the Allied campaign for the liberation of Italy from the reign of Benito Mussolini.
Producer Carlo Ponti bought the rights to the novel, which originally was set to star Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren as a mother and daughter trying to survive the last days of the war by leaving Rome and moving to the countryside, only to find lawlessness just as prevalent there as in the city. American director George Cukor was slated to direct the film for Paramount Pictures as an Italian–American co-production, but Magnani dropped out of the project, worried that Ponti – who was married to Loren – would favour the younger actress.
Cukor also abandoned the project, and Ponti then pressed ahead with Vittorio De Sica as director, casting Loren in the mother’s role originally slated for Magnani, and the then twelve-year-old unknown Eleonora Brown as her daughter. With Paramount out of the picture, Ponti financed the film with a mixture of Italian and French funding, which led to the somewhat surprising but inspired casting of Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michele, an idealistic young communist who befriends the two women.
The film’s structure is simple and episodic. Cesira (Loren), a young widow who runs a small grocery store in Rome with her sheltered daughter Rosetta (Brown), decides to flee the city, which is continually being bombed by the Allies. After convincing a neighbor, Giovanni (Raf Vallone), to watch the store while she’s gone, Cesira and Rosetta take a train to Parma, which is stopped when the tracks ahead are bombed.
Unwilling to wait for repairs that will probably never come, Cesira and Rosetta set off on their own, their suitcases precariously balanced on their heads, hoping to escape to their extended family in the country.
But with the oncoming defeat of the Axis powers, no-one is really in charge. Renegade bands of retreating German soldiers roam the countryside, and Italian Fascists still seek to conscript young men for service in the army, even as American soldiers roll in with tanks and artillery. Cesira has brought with her a considerable amount of money to purchase food at exorbitant black-market prices, but the continual warfare makes everyone a refugee in their own country, with the power struggle between the competing armies keeping everyone at risk. In short, there is no safe place to hide, and every day is yet another fight for survival.
In the country, Cesira meets Michele (Belmondo), a handsome and charismatic young revolutionary who is at odds with the other townspeople, who don’t seem to understand why they’re constantly being bombed and shot at. The locals don’t really know much about politics; many are supporters of Mussolini who don’t know what all the fuss is about, but, for the most part, they all just want the war to end so they can go back to their daily lives.
De Sica was the ideal director for project, much better than Cukor would have been, despite the latter’s undeniable talent, because De Sica had a direct connection to the period in question – and, in many ways, never escaped the profound influence it had on his life and work. From Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) to Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to his last major work, Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1970), De Sica was in many ways formed by the events of World War II. Even in projects wherein he was only an actor – such as Roberto Rossellini’s Il generale Della Rovere (1959), in which De Sica portrayed an unscrupulous “fixer” in war-torn Italy, ready to bargain with both the Nazis and the resistance – the era was never far from his mind.
Shot in gritty black-and-white on a minimal budget with minimal special effects and occasional chunks of stock footage by the gifted Gábor Pogány (a Hungarian cinematographer who emigrated to Italy and did most of his work there), and with an appropriately apprehensive musical score by Armando Trovajoli, Two Women concentrates almost solely on Cesira and Rosetta – and Loren, only 25 at the time of the film’s shooting, more than rises to the occasion. The film’s sympathies are clearly with the female protagonists, and (with the exception of the saintly Michele, who has a sizeable role as the film’s conscience and as a possible romantic interest for Cesira) it is the women’s story that dominates the entire project.
Cesira is seem from the start having to push away men who seek to sexually harass her, giving in reluctantly to Giovanni in the film’s beginning only to secure the safety of her grocery store in her absence. Throughout the film, men continually try to take advantage of her, but Cesira fights back with steely assurance, sheltering the naïve Rosetta as much as she can from the horrors of war. But as they drift from one place to another, and finally find refuge in an abandoned church, Cesira’s worst nightmare comes true as a band of more than twenty Moroccan soldiers invade the sanctuary, and brutally rape both women.
One of the most shocking shots in the film, indeed, is a close-up of Cesira’s face, pinned to the floor as she is about to be raped, looking across the floor of the church to see her daughter, Rosetta, about the suffer the same fate, but unable, finally, to help her. In the group rape’s aftermath, both women stagger out of the church, utterly violated, and wash themselves in a stream in a culvert below. Without illusions from the start of the film, Cesira seems to have expected something like this would eventually happen, but Rosetta has been utterly traumatised by the experience. As the film ends, mother and daughter are trying to reconnect in the wake of this violation, as an image of the two women embracing falls back within the frame, getting smaller and smaller until it disappears from our view.
Impresario Joseph E. Levine acquired the US rights to the film after seeing only a few minutes of the project, convinced it would a huge success. Levine mounted a nonstop campaign for Academy Awards recognition by screening the film throughout the United States on the “arthouse” circuit – which was at that time quite robust – helped by the fact that Loren dubbed her entire role into English herself for the dubbed “mass release” version of the film and accompanied Levine on his whirlwind promotional tour. Levine was not disappointed: Two Women was an international success for both Loren and De Sica, winning Loren both the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1960 and Best Actress at Cannes in 1961, and effectively launching her career as a serious actor.
But the intensity and sincerity of the film is its major calling card; it was a feminist document in an age of overwhelming patriarchy, propelled by Loren’s astonishingly intense performance and De Sica’s near-neorealist documentary edge in the film’s construction. Two Women also demonstrates the fragility of the film medium; through a series of legal blunders, the film fell into the public domain, and for more than three decades it survived only in cheap, bootleg 16mm prints and pan-and-scan DVDs, only to be finally reconstituted in 2017 in a sparkling new digital remaster. In short, we almost lost this film through corporate neglect, until a few dedicated film buffs decided to risk money to save it from complete destruction.
Two Women, then, is not only a masterpiece for De Sica, but also a personal triumph for Loren as well as Brown, who was nurtured through the film’s production by her co-star in a manner that paralleled the film’s brutal and unforgiving narrative. Seeing it today, one is reminded again of the personal passion that surrounded its creation, from studio film to independent project, backed by international financing arrangements and then promoted by a feisty independent promoter to international success. Two Women is a story of survival and triumph on all levels, and, as such, is one of the crowning glories of international feminist cinema.
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La ciociara (Two Women, 1960 Italy 110 mins)
Prod Co: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, Cocinor, Les Films Marceau,
Société Générale de Cinématographie Prod: Carlo Ponti Dir: Vittorio De Sica Scr: Cesare Zavattini Phot: Gábor Pogány Ed: Adriana Novelli Prod. Des: Gastone Medin Mus: Armando Trovajoli
Cast: Sophia Loren, Eleonora Brown, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Raf Vallone