SUDDENLY… LOVE BECOMES LUST… INNOCENCE BECOMES SHAME… AS TWO WOMEN ARE TRAPPED BY VIOLENT PASSION AND UNFORGETTABLE TERROR!
One of the most familiar ways to terrorize a population during an armed conflict is rape. The Italians even came up with a word for it: the Marocchinate. The term defines who committed the atrocities and is largely limited to a specific time and place in history, but those events could have (and do) take place in any war-torn area at any time in history. In this case, it was mass rape and killings committed in 1944 by Moroccan troops in Italy after the Battle of Monte Cassino.
These war crimes were immortalized in Alberto Moravia’s novel and Vittorio De Sica’s film adaptation.
The horrors of World War II are coming close to Cesira (Sophia Loren), a widowed shopkeeper in Rome. As the city is bombed, she flees together with her 12-year-old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). They make their way to Ciociaria, a rural area southeast of Rome better known as Frosinone, where Cesira was raised. They meet Michele Di Libero (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a Communist intellectual, but this place isn’t free from Fascists or Nazis, even if Il Duce is out of the picture. German soldiers show up and need help from the locals…
A horrifying event in a church
In 1943, Alberto Moravia was hiding from the Fascists together with his wife Elsa Morante in the city of Fondi. That’s where he found the inspiration for his novel whose original title means ”The woman from Ciociaria” in Italian. The Marocchinate became an important theme and a literary tool for him in his attempt to show how war dehumanized anyone who was subjected to it.
The most important scene in this film comes near the end, as Cesira and Rosetta are once again on the run, trying this time to make it back to Rome, a city now liberated by the Allies. As they rest inside a church they’re surprised by Moroccan Goumiers, soldiers attached to the Allies. The men grab the woman and the child and rape them repeatedly. The way De Sica and his team stage the horrifying event in the church and the psychological aftermath between mother and daughter is very powerful and leaves audiences somewhat shell-shocked. I don’t think people were quite prepared for what they were getting at the time. What came before those scenes is a skilfully dramatized story about the effects of war on a local population, combined with a loving portrait of a mother and a daughter who are close, even if they’re different; Rosetta is very innocent and religious. They react differently to the presence of Michele in their lives, a young man who takes his ideological mission seriously.
Belmondo (whose voice was dubbed) is fine as a kind of sacrificial lamb, but Loren is the standout; not only is her rapport with Brown heartwarming, but her performance reaches a new emotional depth. At this time, she was an international star, but the role of Cesira was something else; Loren was playing an older woman and looked to her mother’s wartime experiences as a way of informing herself. Perhaps there was also a sense of security in having De Sica behind the camera; after all, he had both directed and starred opposite her in several films.
Two Women remains a touching classic, one of the director’s best, made together with the Neorealist writer Cesare Zavattini. The style of their earlier films is evident here as well, promoting a social message, shooting on authentic locations, and employing a documentary approach. 15 years had passed since the war, it wasn’t exactly the here-and-now feeling of Bicycle Thieves (1948), but the themes of the novel and the film are eternally relevant.
Two Women 1960-Italy. 99 min. B/W. Produced by Carlo Ponti. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini. Novel: Alberto Moravia. Cinematography: Gabor Pogany. Cast: Sophia Loren (Cesira), Raf Vallone (Giovanni), Eleonora Brown (Rosetta), Jean-Paul Belmondo, Carlo Ninchi.
Trivia: Original title: La Ciociara. Anna Magnani was reportedly first cast in the lead, with George Cukor as director. Remade as a TV movie in Italy, Running Away (1989).
Oscar: Best Actress (Loren). Golden Globe: Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film. BAFTA: Best Actress (Loren). Cannes: Best Actress (Loren).
Last word: “I said I will never be able to do it. I am 25 years old and I can’t have a daughter 18. [De Sica] said the daughter is going to be 14. But I said even at 14, I am not a mother. He said just believe me. He sent me a telegram saying ‘I am going to do this film and I want to do it with you because I believe in you. That is the miracle of movies.” (Loren, Gold Derby)