It’s Rome. It’s World War II. The film is Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. Cesira (Sophia Loren) runs a shop, which she wants to leave for a while because she wants to take her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) away from the air raids. Rosetta has a weak heart. Cesira is afraid she might have an attack. So she visits Giovanni (Raf Vallone), a neighbour who runs a coal store. She wants him to take care of her shop while she is away. He wants her. He says he’d do anything for her. Cesira says, “I know. You were a true friend to my husband.” It’s the first time we hear she’s a widow.
Giovanni says her husband was a stupid idiot. Cesira protests. Giovanni says, “Stop it! You were by his side day and night. But did you love him?” Cesira says, very simply, “I married him.” There’s a whole story in that small sentence. Cesira had a hard life, harder than the life she is leading now with Rosetta. She was eating once a day, sleeping with donkeys and chickens. Suddenly a man with money came along and said he would take her to Rome. She did what anyone would have done in her situation. She tells Giovanni, “I married Rome, not him.” It’s a poignant point about how war changes us.
In some circles, The Life Ahead, that released on Netflix this Friday, is the week’s biggest movie, simply because it stars Sophia Loren. Back in the day, Two Women (it was released in 1960) was even bigger. Loren had become a big international star after starring with Hollywood heavyweights like Cary Grant (Houseboat). The film co-starred Jean-Paul Belmondo, who’d become something of an art-house star that same year, with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. (It was released in March, Two Women in December.) It was written by Cesare Zavattini, whose works included Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto.D., all directed by De Sica.
But most of all, the film transformed the perception of Loren into that of a “serious actress”. Today, we take it for granted that the surest route to an Oscar is when a beautiful actress de-beautifies herself, like Nicole Kidman in The Hours, or Charlize Theron in Monster. Apparently, it worked in 1960, too. Loren won Best Actress trophies at the Academy Awards (she was the first actor/actress to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance) and at the Cannes Film Festival, which was covered by the The New York Times critic, Vincent Canby.
He wrote, “When the film was over, a spotlight was thrown onto the box where the actress was sitting. She stood up, wearing a smashing white evening dress and what looked to be the complete stock of Van Cleef and Arpels. The contrast to the drab but heroic peasant woman we’d been watching on the screen was obvious and intentional and, in the fashion of her best performances, exhilaratingly funny.” This is to take nothing away from Loren’s performance in Two Women, which is indeed powerful. But, apparently, there’s something inside all of us that wants to applaud stars for… not being stars on screen, for being “real people,” for being like us.
Personally, I like glamorous stars when they are just being glamorous stars. Elizabeth Taylor may have won the Best Actress Oscar for playing an overweight shrew in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but I prefer watching her in lightweight trash like The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper, where she’s the dictionary definition of gorgeous.
But then, you could frame the same argument a different way and say the reason glamorous stars de-glam themselves is because nobody takes them seriously as glamorous stars. It’s only when Sophia Loren plays Cesira in Two Women that we sit up and say, “Oh wow, what a performance!”
Two Women is sly enough to hint at the goddess behind the peasant facade. A woman at whose house Cesira takes shelter exclaims, “My sons’ eyes are popping out of their heads!” A Russian defector says, “You have Ukrainian eyes. You are beautiful.” An American asks to see her legs, so he can take a picture. But the rest of the film is a sobering journey that puts Loren’s performance on par with her physicality. Cesira takes Rosetta to their hometown — but the war she hoped to leave behind keeps following her.
An old man on a bicycle is gunned down by an airplane. He was just a few feet ahead, which means they could just as easily have been killed. Then, at a lunch gathering, Michele (Belmondo) declares, “I don’t want to be an Italian if it means just sitting here eating whilst others are dying. We’re pigs! That’s what we are.” Michele is an activist before people got to be known as activists. When told that a man isn’t a man until he has experienced war, he replies, “Then I would rather be castrated.”
Slowly, the events start becoming more horrific. We meet a mother who offers Cesira and Michele some milk. She means her breast milk. She cups a breast and says, “I don’t need it anymore. Who is it for now? They killed my little baby.” And later, in a scene that must have been horrifying for its time, Cesira and Rosetta (who’s not even 13) end up being raped. Afterwards, as Rosetta lies frozen, Cesira cradles her and combs her hair with a barrette. It’s as though she needs to do something maternal, and this is the only thing she can think of. Loren is stupendously affecting, here.
Two Women is amazingly lyrical, imbuing graphic prose with touches of poetry. In a beautiful moment, people kneel and pray when airplanes drop lights to check troop movements. These lights falling from the sky give the locals the sense of a divine presence. Or take the scene where two Englishmen join Michele and Cesira and Rosetta for dinner. The Englishmen make polite conversation. “There are so many good things here in Italy.” Michele says they really don’t know Italy. The Englishmen say they know Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Michele says, “But they are the dead. Do you know about the living?” He points to Rosetta. “Look at these eyes… They’re like stars…” He tells the Englishmen, “If you had not gone about bombing cities, fewer young girls like this one would’ve died.” The Englishmen say they were merely following orders. Michele says, “The commander just gives orders, but he hasn’t seen these eyes.”
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).