The pairing of Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo doesn’t work; their scenes together don’t simmer the way you want them to, and the fault is Belmondo’s. His character, a coddled only son with vaguely left-wing politics (Belmondo wearing glasses and pretending to be an intellectual? Talk about playing against type!), falls in love with Loren’s character. She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy. A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.
“Two Women” is set in the countryside around Rome in the last months of World War II. Loren’s character, Cesira, escaped the impoverished village in Ciociaria, the region of central Italy where she was born, by marrying an older man. Now widowed, she owns a grocery in Rome and is raising her teenage daughter alone. With the city under bombardment by the Allies, mother and daughter flee the city and return to Ciociaria, where they encounter Belmondo’s character, Michele. He mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are Fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers.
Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture. But that’s what makes it so powerful. Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning. War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s. Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor? Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.
Loren conveys all of this in a way that is so genuine! Credit also goes to Alberto Moravia, the famous Italian writer whose novels spawned many fine films. His own experiences living near Ciociaria in Central Italy after he and his wife fled the bombing in Rome inspired the book, which Vittorio de Sica faithfully adapted for the screen. All around, a tour de force that doesn’t glamorize an ugly time.
(31 March 2011)