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Two Women (1960) – Vittorio De Sica

May 15, 2010

(I wrote this review for a paper assignment, I edited a small bit of it, but please excuse how didactic and mechanical this must seem in comparison to my past reviews.)

(P.S. Just on a coincidental note, in Precious there is a scene where her and her mother are watching this film on television.)

The year 1960 is an interesting time to make a film about Italy’s World War II experience.  The war is long over and all are recovered.  Two Women is considered a main piece of the Italian Neorealism movement, yet most all other neorealist films were made between the years 1945 and 1953, a logical time to document, through fictional narratives, the parallels to Italians post-war feelings.  Then why did Vittorio De Sica chose to make such a late post-war neorealism film focusing on a mother and daughter enduring the abrupt effects of fascism?

The neorealism movement wasn’t just any film with a realistic tone; rather they were populated with regular people of the lower to middle class often, but not always dealing with everyday life amidst the effects or after effects of World War II.  These are films of tragedy; disappointment; poverty.  To achieve realistic effects, the filmmakers were often known to use regular people instead of high profile actors and were often shot using available light and locations.  And perhaps most importantly, they concentrated on simplicity; the simple devastations to simple people through simple storytelling.  Unlike films that came after them, such as the existential crises, formalistic films from the heart of Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci’s oeuvre, these films weren’t as concerned with such reliance on central and constant visual metaphors.

Two Women follows this pedigree rather closely except that De Sica did employ real actors, and not only real, but famous actors.  Sophia Loren plays the main character, Cesira, and it goes without saying that Sophia Loren was no amateur actress, in fact she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film.  Also featured in the film is Frenchman Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing Michele, who was garnering huge amounts of fame at the time for his work in Jean-Luc Godard’s breakthrough Breathless, and Belmondo’s fame would continue to snowball as the 60s went on thanks to more Godard films as well as other notable filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville.  But let it be known, De Sica’s earlier, notable films such as The Bicycle Thief, are famous for their non-actor employment.

Also, as mentioned before, the time the film was made doesn’t exactly fall into the thick of the neorealism films.  Especially considering Fellini and Antonioni had both begun making considerable stylistic changes as well as moving on to films that comment on the upper class malaise and intellectual poverty with the former’s La Dolce Vita and the latter’s relatively plot-less La Avventura.  So, one must question why did De Sica chose to make this film at this time.  Obviously, the war was something that still weighed heavy on De Sica’s conscience.  But it is more than that; De Sica made this film in attempt to remind Italians about their choices of the past.

De Sica wanted to awaken Italians from the attempt at forgetting why they found themselves in the positions they did.  The Italians weren’t merely conquered victims of circumstance, but rather a country who was conquered because of their serious and baneful delve into fascism, which was still in effect at the beginning of this war.  Now, it may come without saying, but not all Italians were to blame for this suffering.  It was the middle-upper class Italians who were known for their conformist proclivities towards fascism in the first place, of course there were also those who considered themselves Anti-Fascists among the Italian population, and many of whom were also in the middle-upper class.  This now leaves the lower class, and the ordinary; those who took no specific stance against fascism, for whatever variety of reasons.  This is one of the main areas of examination in the film: the grey area.  The titular characters Cesira and Rosetta as helpless lower class women represent this group of people who really are examples of Italians who were victims of circumstance; a mother who had not more capacity than what looking after her daughter and her shop took, not that she should have been more able, especially in such social circumstances.  This exact description, amidst wartime, reeks of neorealist ingredients.

The film’s storyline is concerned with Cesira and Rosetta’s refuge from Rome, which is being bombed by allies.  They are escaping towards Cesira’s land of origin, which in itself is an unavoidable metaphor.  Her escape towards home is De Sica’s way of saying these simple characters are trying to escape to somewhere they know, or something they know, because they obviously do not relate to what is happening.  They are the grey area.  As mentioned before, neorealist films do not rely on metaphors, however, certainly De Sica, as any seasoned storyteller does, uses certain conceits, images, and situations to reach depths beyond ostensible content.

A routine theme on their travels is the misogyny of men towards the two women.  The film even starts with a man more or less taking advantage of Cesira; she does nothing more than let a man sleep with her.  She is ogled on the train by a fellow Italian male, a man asks if he can take an obscene picture.  De Sica uses misogyny to comment on how men’s foolish decisions have put these two women in these constant positions of discomfort and impurity.  While they are en route, they reach a village in which to break in.  They come across villagers who accept them and are almost immediately engaged in conversation of the war.  Belmondo’s Michele stands out as the most significant of the company.  He is a young adult full of intellectual insight.  Though it is played out (as romantic) for the sake of dramatic conventions, Michele is taken by the two women, especially Cesira, and eventually becomes close to them.  Cesira does not think seriously of Michele’s romantic interest, she calls him “subversive.”  She thinks of him as a man with good intentions; a good heart, but impractical and flawed when set to their reality.  Symbolically, Michele acts as a sort of counterpart to the women, the mental side to what they physically stand for.

The centerpiece of the film happens as they make their way back toward Rome.  While in a town, Rosetta is found in a church by a band of soldiers who surround her and rape her.  This is such a strong image because of the duality of the virgin and the church.  This is a complete mark of the loss of innocence given Rosetta’s strict Christianity.  We are left with an omnipresent light from above.

The film’s ending proves just as moving; Cesira holds Rosetta in her arms.  Michele, who represented their conscience, has been murdered.  It is also important to note that Michele’s death happened off screen, a very non-heroic characteristic of the neorealism movement.  Anyway, the two women are interlocked, crying silently as the camera slowly pulls out.

Two Women is a film made by a man who didn’t want his countrymen to forget, a man with a conscience that put his talents to use in order for others to remember or learn about the past in a less filtered shade; to see the general, yet horrible damage war has on people as well as how dangerous decisions of conformism that once negatively affected others, had soon after caught up to themselves as well as those unconcerned, or the grey area.

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