Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini
Based on a Novel by: Alberto Moravia
Starring: Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Raf Vallone, Carlo Ninchi
Country: Italy, France
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Nouveaux Pictures and Argent Films have recently merged together to form a new distribution company in the UK, called CultFilms. According to their press release, they “will create luxury releases of quality foreign and arthouse films. Every title will be a high end, collectible product, and extras will feature one or more in-depth documentary.” This sounded exactly up my street of course, so as soon as I heard about CultFilms I asked if I could help promote their releases by reviewing them. The first films they're bringing out are two Italian classics starring Sophia Loren; Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, which I will review here, and Ettore Scola's A Special Day, which I will get to at a later date.
Vittorio De Sica was a director and actor who is most famous for being one of the leading figures in the Italian neo-realist movement. Two of the films he made as part of this during the 1940's, Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, both won honorary Academy Awards and he went on to win another couple of Best Foreign Language Film awards later on in his career as well as being a regular fixture at Cannes. So he was certainly in favour with critics around the world.
De Sica's 1960 film, Two Women, was another Oscar winner, taking home the Best Actress award for Sophia Loren. This was particularly special in fact, being the first time an acting Oscar had been given to a non-English language speaking part. I must admit, it's not a film I was particularly aware of, although I'm no expert in Italian cinema. I liked Bicycle Thieves a lot though and the acclaim garnered on this later film piqued my interest.
Two Women charts the struggles faced by Cesira (Loren) and her just-about-teenage daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) in Italy during WWII. Living in Rome at the start of the film, they leave the city to flee the constant bombings, but find themselves in equal danger once they head into the rural province of Ciociaria, where Cesira grew up. Alongside surviving the horrors of war and trying to bring up her daughter properly amongst all this, Cesira is torn between her love of the forceful Giovanni (Raf Vallone) back in Rome and the outspoken, well educated Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who she meets in Ciociaria and Rosetta is besotted with.
Although it's not thought of as part of the neorealist movement, which had just about died out by the time of its release, Two Women still has that sort of feel to it, charting the lives of the working class during the war with relative 'realism'. I liked how it didn't focus on soldiers and didn't take a clearly patriotic stance, showing the Italian people to be more concerned with surviving than caring what side they were on in the conflict. Soldiers from all sides are shown in positive and negative lights, rather than simplistically portraying villains and heroes.
Like a lot of the great works of Italian cinema, it's also beautifully crafted, despite the gritty setting. The monochrome cinematography in particular is elegantly composed. There are a couple of nice little moments thrown into the mix too, like when Cesira spots a ladybird in the grass as she shelters from an attack plane swooping overhead. De Sica also crafts some brutal scenes though, in particular a harrowing rape towards the end. There's no shying away from the perils of the time.
Speaking of which, I did think the film's tone was a little too relentlessly grim and humourless though. So much so, that I found the film didn't have the emotional impact it maybe could have had. For the lows to truly hit home I feel you need to experience some highs. Obviously during the war there can't have been much to laugh at, but the never ending earnestness and despair of the lead characters feels quite melodramatic. That said, the final act is quite powerful.
So it's not a barrel of laughs, and has the feel of what we now call 'Oscar-bait', with its earnest tone and air of importance, but Two Women remains a finely mounted piece of classic Italian cinema. Buoyed by a very strong leading performance from Loren, it provides a distinguished look at life on the Italian home front during WWII.
Two Women will be released by CultFilms on DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK on 31st October. I saw the DVD version and the picture and sound quality were both very good, particularly considering the film and its lengthy extra features are contained on one disc. I did see it on a small screen though, so it wasn't the best equipment for a thorough check. Both the original Italian soundtrack and English dubs are included too. Personally I would never even consider watching a film like this dubbed, but there might be some out there that would, so it's nice to have the option.
There are only 2 special features listed, but these are certainly not to be scoffed at. Both are feature length documentaries – one called 'Vittorio D', which looks at the life and work of the director and another called 'Sophia, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow', which focuses on the legendary actress and is framed by a lengthy interview with the woman herself. I'm ashamed to say I haven't sat through either of these in their entirety yet as I simply don't have the time, but I intend to as soon as I can. From a brief skim they look to be rich, insightful and contain interviews with a wide range of respectable and well known stars and filmmakers.
So a good sign of things to come from CultFilms.