New art house label Cultfilms kicks off with two classic Sophia Loren titles, both set around the Second World War. The star and the period apart, the two films are very different in style, but both are interesting and impressive in their own ways.
1960’s Two Women (La Ciociara) is unquestionably the more important of the two – an increasingly bleak slice of neorealism that won Loren the Oscar and remains one of the most important Italian films of the era. Loren plays Cesira, a widowed shopkeeper who leaves Rome with her religiously devout twelve-year-old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) to escape the Allied bombing. Heading back to her rural home village of Ciociaria, she finds herself developing a relationship with Communist sympathiser Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), as Mussolini falls and loyalties are split between the villagers who find themselves – like all of Italy – wondering if it will be the Germans or the Allies who take over. Once the Allied victory seems assured and German occupation is ended, Cesira and Rosetta head back to Rome, but while taking shelter in a church, they are set upon and raped by Moroccan troops who are part of the French army. The assault traumatises Rosetta, who becomes hardened, leaving behind her religious beliefs, distancing herself from her mother and starting to go out dancing with an older boy. Only the discovery that Michele – who Rosetta idolised – has been killed by German soldiers brings her back to her stolen childhood.
Two Women is a slow descent into darkness – the first half of the film, despite the horrors of war and the political conflict that rages across Italy never being far away, maintains a light feel, as Michele uncertainly romances the feisty widow and locals engage in comedic bickering. The move from light to dark happens slowly, almost without us noticing, and so the brutal assault – tough to watch even now – seems all the more shocking. And it’s rare to see a film that allows the fact that it wasn’t only the Nazis who carried out war time atrocities – while the fact that the rapists are Moroccan troops adds a dark-skinned ‘otherness’ to the assailants (a touch of racial politics that viewers will probably be more sensitive about now than they were in 1961), it remains the case that this is one of the few films that shows allied troops behaving like monsters.
Loren’s performance is remarkable – emotive, but never melodramatic, it’s hard to imagine that she was only 25 when the film was made – she is utterly convincing as an older woman. Originally, she was due to play the daughter, but thank God director Vittorio De Sica and producer Carlo Ponti were willing to take a chance on switching the roles and making the daughter much younger. The film might not have made much sense if Rosetta was in her twenties, when we might reasonably expect her to have already been sexually aware, and certainly the mother-daughter dynamic would have been less convincing.
A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare), made in 1977, also won a brace of awards and remains a highly regarded film even now, but it is the lesser of the two releases here. Set in 1938, the film takes place on the day that Hitler came to visit Mussolini in Rome – an event that sees the population take to the streets to follow the parade. Antonietta (Loren) stays home while her fascist husband (John Vernon) and their six children go off to watch the events. While pursuing her escaped pet bird, she encounters her neighbour who lives across the block – Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) is an eccentric, charming former radio broadcaster, and the pair seem drawn together through the day. Even though the building supervisor warns her away from him – suggesting that he is an anti-fascist – Antonietta finds herself increasingly drawn to him, and makes a pass at him. But it turns out that Gabriele has been dismissed from his job not only because he is an anti-fascist, but also because he is a homosexual – something she discovers when making a pass at him. He is due to be deported to Sardinia later that day, and so they spend the remaining hours talking, confessing and eventually making love, before the police arrive to take him away and her family return, excited by their grand day out watching the two leaders.
Ettore Scola’s film is a slight tale – deliberately so, it must be said. Rather than hammering home the message of the evils of fascism (the fascists in the film are, for the most part, ordinary families who are simply proud of their leader and their country), it simply allows the grander tragedy to be simply a part of the personal problems and unhappiness of these two characters: people with nothing in common who are nevertheless brought together over a single day. It’s a charming, wistful and eventually rather downbeat story that has a decidedly washed out, almost monochrome look, and keeps its two glamorous stars – both playing off each other beautifully here, as ever – looking decidedly dowdy. As a snapshot of doomed relationships (and clearly, there could never be any future for these two together) and a harbinger of the horrors still to come, the film is very effective and impressively moving – but it doesn’t quite have the same emotional clout or sense of grand tragedy as Two Women, or indeed Sunflower – another wartime grand tragedy featuring Loren and Mastroianni, despite the stellar performances at the heart of the film. But then, few films do.
Both discs have newly restored versions of the film, both looking gorgeous, and include the Sophia Loren documentary previously included on the Sunflower DVD as an extra (a substantial addition, but including it on both films is perhaps overkill), and each has an excellent documentary about the two great directors. Icing on the cake for what are already important and essential examples of Italian cinema.