Friday 22 February 2008

Two Women (1960)

Vittorio De Sica was a major European director, but known today mostly for his apparent classic The Bicycle Thief, or Ladri di Biciclette in its native Italian, which is on all the best foreign film lists and has a solid spot on the IMDb Top 250. I haven't caught up with that one yet, but have seen a variety of De Sica films, which are all interesting in different ways.

The first I saw was After the Fox, an English language film with Peter Sellers in one of his many frenetic disguise films, and proved to have been far better in my memory of it from childhood than when rewatching as an adult. 1952's Umberto D, on the other hand, was a quiet classic, understated but awesome and truly touching. Indiscretion of an American Wife was really hard to judge because it's an American release of an Italian film, Stazione Termini, shorn of nearly a third of its length and apparently with its entire angle altered. Two Women is something else again, a 1960 release that brought Sophia Loren the first Best Actress Oscar ever given to a performance in a foreign language film.

She does give an amazing performance, full of depth and power for someone known at the time as nothing but another elegant European actress. Her eyes especially are alive and expressive and tell plenty of stories on their own. She plays Cesira, who apparently married the first person who could get her to Rome where she now runs a store. However now she's willing to do almost anything to get out of Rome, because it's wartime and so not a particularly safe place to be. The people don't just have to deal with Mussolini's fascists and the Nazis who are prevalent in Italy but also the bombing done by the Allies.

So Cesira finds her way away from the city with her daughter Rosetta, played by Eleanora Brown, who looks older than her twelve years and is Italian regardless of her Anglo-sounding name. The story is partly about their journey through 1943 Italy as the Allies invade and Mussolini is jailed, but mostly about the reality of what that really meant. Everything here has to do with perspectives, with the story built around the little conflicts between those perspectives, all of which add up to the big story.

Like many characters in the film Cesira hates the war, but has no real hate for any of the sides involved. She sees the Germans she meets as decent folks yet helps out English soldiers who need food. She hangs out with Michele, played by Jean Paul Belmondo, because he has access to things she needs, but he's an idealist and she doesn't understand or appreciate much of what he talks about. They find their way to some of his family who are forced to host a German officer who seems to care more about Italian peasants than they do.

That doesn't make him a good person, it just plays with our notions of stereotypes. There are two real approaches to the logic: either nobody's either good or bad but rather a combination of both, or sheer concepts like good and bad are completely meaningless until they affect people directly. In many ways, therefore, this becomes almost the polar opposite of something like Commandos Strike at Dawn. It's reality to counter story, brutality to counter timidity, perspective to counter propaganda.

And it's very, very powerful, both in the telling of it and in who does the work. Cesare Zavattini adapted a novel by Alberto Moravia, Gábor Pogány was the cinematographer and Vittorio De Sica directed. I don't know who deserves most credit but all and more would seem to qualify. At the heart of it all though are the performances of the two women of the title: Sophia Loren as Cesira and Eleanora Brown as Rosetta. Both are nothing short of amazing and after a brutal scene with a gang of Moroccan rapists it's impossible not to watch them. Stunning work.

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