From my piece written for the New Beverly.
“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think would have an easy time of it. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.” – Sophia Loren
The title of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women sounds so simple. Two women, mother and daughter, who love each other, enduring difficult, terrifying and heartbreaking circumstances. But the simplicity of that potent word: Women is rendered more powerful by the age of the fascinating females – one, the mother, about 35, the other, a pre-teen on the precipice of what comes with being a woman, nearing that lovely but often confusing and vulnerable age of 13. How she becomes a woman is not necessarily how she becomes a woman, it’s how society might view her as she crosses that threshold, it’s what many tell you makes you a woman, but that her choice towards one aspect of womanhood is taken from her, and taken from her violently (and with her mother enduring the same) gives Two Women an extra dose of sadness and, touchingly, strength.
It would have been a bit different, though certainly horrifying, had the movie followed the novel by Alberto Moravio, more to-the-age, and cast its original pondered-upon leads. Moravio, who also wrote the “Il disprezzo” (turned into Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt) and “Il Conformista” (adapted into Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist), wrote “La Ciociara” featuring a full-grown 18-year-old daughter and a 50-something mother. Most assuredly, these are two women. The book, purchased by producer Carlo Ponti, was originally set for George Cukor to direct with Ponti’s young wife Sophia Loren attached. There was the thought (decision? One never knows what to believe entirely based on various sources of production history) of casting Anna Magnani to star as the mother and Loren as the gorgeous daughter. Wouldn’t that have been something? Cukor left the project and, reportedly, Magnani didn’t want to play Sophia Loren’s mother (though she blamed Ponti for losing the part, citing that Moravio preferred her for the role). De Sica entered the venture with, based on what he’s stated, the clear intention of casting Loren (who won an Oscar for her performance) as the protective mother. Adapting the novel with his frequent and important collaborator Cesare Zavattini (who also wrote De Sica’s most influential, now classic works of neo-realism, Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D.), the ages were changed – then 25-year-old Loren would play about 35, her daughter (12-year-old Eleonora Brown) would be the young, almost 13-year-old daughter.
Girls grew up faster back then or were required to be adults earlier (though all girls seem to grow up a lot faster than society even realizes), but the age difference was a point to De Sica, for “greater poignancy.” The girl was still a girl. And she’s stated as a girl, a pretty girl, it’s pointed out many times in the picture and by her mother’s adoring eyes, mama showing her off to those not perceived as threatening, laughing and proud. But she’s still a child, and her shielding mother will throw a rock at you if you get too close. De Sica said of the age change: “If in doing this we moved away from original line of Moravia, we had better opportunity to stress, to underline, the monstrous impact of war on people. The historical truth is that the great majority of those raped were young girls.”
That a brutal rape will occur, two, in fact, hangs over the picture with such tension, that even with all the danger of the bombs, soldiers walking the hills, the leering men asking for a bit of leg or the process of surviving with enough bread to eat, the extra terror that comes with being a woman, and two women on their own, follows these characters throughout the movie with a perceptible dread. So much that, at times, Two Women almost feels like a horror film, just as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring did enough to inspire one (The Last House on the Left, though Bergman’s masterpiece is decidedly sadder and more horrifying). Two Women is famous enough now (still, surprisingly little discussed and less revered within De Sica’s canon) that viewers know what they’re going to see, but the moment nevertheless feels shocking, not surprising necessarily, though it happens so quickly it does take one aback, almost unexpectedly, but devastating, terrifying. The way De Sica and cinematographer Gábor Pogány shoot this dreadful moment (the movie is beautifully shot in black and white), how swiftly these women are surrounded, the multiple points of view, the setting in a church), never fails to distress me. It leaves a mark.
That the horror occurs when they believe they may be safe, when the war is ending or supposedly over, punctuates how terrible life can be. Indeed, that this mother and daughter have been struggling through the entire movie to be safe, makes this all the more angering over what they must suffer. Loren’s young widow Cesira, a shopkeeper during WWII Rome, leaves the city with her 12-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Brown), to protect her. Enough! The young mother can’t stand the constant fear, the Allied bomb blasts, causing Rosetta to quake and cry. In a stunning, intriguingly shot seduction scene with the married Giovanni, one that at first feels dangerous to Cesira (“Did you hurt yourself?” he asks) and then erotic and interesting (“You didn’t kill me” she says), Cesira sleeps with the lusty man before leaving. Cesira might love him, she’s sad to wave goodbye on the train, she’s happy to receive his letters, but she also needs him to look after the store – the act is both sexual and sensible – and not for one moment does De Sica judge her for this. She heads out for native Ciociaria, up in the mountains, back with the peasants, teaching little Rosetta how to walk with a suitcase on her head the way regular folk do.
They’re vulnerable out there alone, but they laugh and talk and Cesira seems strong – protective. Before, Giovani (Raf Vallone who in real life served with the Communist resistance in World War II) asked Cesira why she married a man she didn’t love; she asserts she didn’t like being poor. “I married Rome,” she says. But returning to her roots doesn’t make Cesira overly proud, she knows where she came from, and she listens to the young intellectual Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) talk of how the peasants are superior to city dwellers these days (“They are the evil ones”). Michele, whom we grow to love, and who loves Cesira (she thinks he’s too young, Rosetta adores him) is the overtly political voice of the movie, overjoyed when learning Mussolini has been jailed, angered by anyone’s apathy or willing to take whatever happens at least if the war just ends, but sympathetic and sweet to his family. Still, he says, “If the Germans win I will kill myself.”
It is with Michele that Cesira witnesses one of the film’s saddest, most disturbing moments: they enter a war-torn village seeking food and come across a dazed woman, still young, and in an interminable state of grief. Before realizing how stricken the woman is, Cesira inquires where she can buy food. “Some fruit? Some honey? Little sugar?” The woman looks at the two curiously, and then tells how she was shot at by Germans, making a desperate, dismaying sound of shooting guns. She then opens her dress and pulls out one of her bare breasts. She says: ‘”You can have this milk if you like. I don’t need it anymore. What for? They killed my baby. Who do I give it to? You want it?” Michele but mostly Cesira backs away horrified as the woman starts exclaiming to anyone who will listen among the rubble: “Who wants milk? Who wants my milk?” The merging of broken motherhood with a potential sexual plea, a selling of her body, even if she means her breast for sustenance (the men and soldiers she’ll meet along the way will likely not look at her breasts for food) is surely too heartbreaking for Cesira to even think about, her healthy maternal bond with daughter is everything to her. The ravaging of motherhood, that it means anything to anyone during wartime, works as a portent of things to come. And it’s heartbreaking.
Cesira can’t possible want to remember that moment. Her sexuality and motherhood is healthy. She knows men desire her, she even likes the attention at times, she knows Michele yearns for her, but she’s more interested in taking care of her daughter. Love will come later. Now, it’s survival and watching her daughter grow up into a beautiful woman with eyes “like stars.” I’ve red some criticism that Loren was too beautiful, too sexy, for this role. That it went against De Sica’s neo-realistic way of inverting glamor – through artifice – like the stark contrast of the lush, but paper Rita Hayworth posters plastered up among the poverty stricken of Bicycle Thieves. Juxtaposed against such dire conditions, lovely Rita is an unattainable absurdity. But I disagree that Loren would at all mirror paper Rita, or that late De Sica (this was 1960, after his masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. employed not only non movie stars, but non actors) was resting on her glamour.
I think her sexiness, not glamour, but her beauty and eroticism – the way Loren can simply recline on the grass with the knowledge of how enticing she must look, but at other times, have no idea or concern with what men want – shows both how self aware and selfless Cesira is. She was a peasant, yes, but why would a peasant not be beautiful? Or even as beautiful as a movie star? Young girl Loren did not begin as a movie star. We all start somewhere. According to Loren’s biographer Warren G. Harris, De Sica told Loren, “You have actually lived this story yourself, Sophia. You survived the war. You know all there is to know about it. If you can become this woman, without any thought as to how you look, without trying to restrain your emotions, letting everything flow into this character, I guarantee that you will give a wonderful interpretation of it.”
And she does. By the time the rape occurs, we’ve grown to love and admire both mother and daughter, feel warmth and compassion, and we worry for Michele who is taken away by German soldiers. As the war nears its end, mother and daughter feel safe to return to Rome, even amidst the chaos of soldiers and deserters and god knows what else. As vulnerable as they are, they walk along and decide to rest in a church. The bombed-out church is clearly symbolic – this will not be a place of worship, nor of sanctuary nor of peace. Earlier in the film Cesira asks Michele: “Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” He answers: “You can’t escape. And it’s better so.” Perhaps better so because you must know everywhere is dangerous – even a church. Cesira finds some old pews and dusts them off for her and Rosetta to nap on. Rosetta, about to sleep, gazes up at the busted ceiling, her face looking momentarily worried, eyeing such a strange sight. Cesira readies for her nap but spies a man in the room and quickly wakes Rosetta to leave. It’s too late. They are ambushed by a group of men, running and scurrying like cockroaches. The overhead shot is horrifying – we know there’s no way they’ll possibly get away. Gang raped by Moroccan soldiers of the French Army, we see from different perspectives, daughter screaming, mother screaming, and the daughter’s face, close up, eyes wide, in shock, penetrated. De Sica films this so quickly, but with lasting impact, and with such chaos and disjointed intensity that it never leaves you. You can see that Rosetta’s face has literally died inside. After the brutal attack, mother and daughter are alive, but Cesira turns to see Rosetta, a shaft of light from the broken roof shining down on her, dress raised up. She is lifeless, like a doll. They must move along, even after this horrific attack, and walking along the road, Rosetta clutches near her pelvis in pain, wanders to a stream to wash her delicate areas. You just didn’t see scenes like this in movies at that time – the after affects of rape – and De Sica films this unflinchingly but with empathy.
And this is where the other woman comes in. Rosetta is now numb, but out of anger or ingrained cultural expectations, or just shock, she later that evening goes out with a man who buys her stockings. Like a woman. This enrages her mother, worried the act has now thrust her daughter into adulthood too quickly, or that she’ll become a whore (which the movie would never judge), or perhaps that Rosetta will never enjoy love or sex or men in a healthy way. The only thing that finally breaks Rosetta’s traumatized spell is hearing of the death of Michele, and mother and daughter are now nearly in the same position as when the picture started – holding each other, crying, bonding. One could read this as some kind of happy ending, that maternal order is restored even in tragedy, but I tend to agree with French critic André Bazin’s assessment of De Sica; how one can read his pictures. He’s discussing movies like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. but I believe Bazin’s thoughts fit in quite well with Two Women:
“It would be a mistake to believe that the love De Sica bears for man, and forces us to bear witness to, is a form of optimism. If no one is really bad, if face to face with each individual human being we are forced to drop our accusation as was Ricci when he caught up with the thief, we are obliged to say ‘that the evil which undeniably does exist in the world is elsewhere that in the heart of man, that it is somewhere in the order of things… De Sica protests the comparison that has been made between Bicycle Thieves and the works of Kafka on the grounds that his hero’s alienation is social and not metaphysical. True enough, but Kafka’s motifs are no less valid if one accepts them as allegories of social alienation, and one does not have to believe in a cruel God to feel the guilt of which Joseph K. is culpable. On the contrary, the drama lies in this: God does not exist, the last office in the castle is empty.”
Or, again, as Cesira asked Michele, “Isn’t there some safe place in the world?”