I think most of us, if we are honest, prefer to see Sophia Loren as that earthy Italian sex goddess, a simply luscious woman who inspires such passion within us. We like seeing that fun, flirty side to her. There is nothing wrong with seeing Loren for the Neapolitan beauty that she still remains. However, one cannot deny that beneath that buxom exterior is a true actress after seeing her in Two Women, a film as far removed from her coquettish image as possible. Bringing Italian neo-realism to one of its highest points, Two Women ends up breaking your heart, showing how even 'the enemy' suffers brutally through no fault of their own.
World War II-era Rome is where Cesira (Loren), a widow and shopkeeper, is enduring the Allied bombardments, one that frighten her sensitive, simple daughter Rosetta (Eleanora Brown). Cesira has grown tired of the bombings and of Rome itself, finding nothing to keep her there. With Rosetta's safety as her highest concern, she decides it is time to return to her native mountainous village of Santa Eufemia to wait the war out. As the two women make their journey, they share laughter and horror: the humor of inept Italian railway systems mixed with the anonymity of indiscriminate gunfire.
Finally arriving home, she is greeted warmly, though the remote village has very little to offer. Among those living in a world barely touched by the war is Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), an intellectual and almost-atheist who blames the community for the misery they're in (especially when the villagers sing Fascist songs to celebrate the party Cesira and Rosetta have inadvertently crashed).
Life in Santa Eufemia goes on despite the war. The people are poor but generally safe and relatively happy given the circumstances; they still hold a naïve, almost innocent view of Il Duce: they save for Michele are sad to learn Mussolini has been taken prisoner. Michele is drawn to Cesira, but her focus is only on Rosetta. "Rosetta is a saint, and I'm not worthy of being her mother," she declares, and puts her daughter and protecting her above all else, even Michele, whom Cesira sees more as a son than as a potential lover. Rosetta, for her part, holds Michele in a special place in her heart, not sexually but emotionally, the light of wisdom and kindness in a dark world.
Cesira, Michele, and the village entire find themselves still encountering the mad world the mountains can no longer protect them from. First, a Russian deserter asks for refuge, which the village gives, Cesira even offering what wine they have as a celebration of sorts. Then the Germans come and terrorize the civilians, ultimately taking Michele to be their guide across the mountains, to the heartbreak and horror of his parents, fearful of losing their only child.
The community leaves the mountains to reach the advancing American armies in hopes of rescue. Some go to Naples, but Cesira and Rosetta head back to Rome. On their way, while resting at an abandoned church, a group of Moroccan soldiers come upon the unprotected women, and viciously rape them within sight of the statue of the Madonna.
Rosetta is twelve-years-old.
Cesira is devastated beyond measure at the double brutality of a.) being raped herself and b.) being powerless to protect the child she holds so dear from the horror and violence of forced sexual intercourse. Rosetta is traumatized into silence, Cesira into a hollow numbness. Arriving at a hostel, Cesira is horrified to find Rosetta has left with a older boy to dance. She is more devastated to learn Michele has been summarily shot by the Germans. When Rosetta returns, silk stockings in hand as reward for her dancing, an enraged Cesira slaps her around. Rosetta remains mute. It isn't until Cesira tearfully tells her daughter about Michele's death that Rosetta emerges, bursting into tears and calling for her Mama.
Their lives, shattered by this cruel war, now must attempt to put them together the best they can.
Two Women is the most solid proof possible that Sofia Loren is a legitimate actress. This is one of the most moving, heartbreaking, emotionally shattering performances I've seen from any actress, let alone one known for her extraordinary beauty. I still tear up thinking about Loren as Cesira, this flawed woman with a questionable past who tries desperately to save her daughter from the madness around them, and fails through no fault of her own.
After the brutal rape, as they walk down the road, shell-shocked by the horrors they've endured, they come across a group of soldiers in a jeep. In a fury, Cesira grabs the rocks she can and throws them at the liberators after an official tells her in his weak Italian, "Peace, peace". "Yes, yes, wonderful peace," she screams at them, then denounces them for what their 'peace' has brought on them.
The fury mixed with impotence within Cesira is devastating, just emotionally devastating, and Loren's performance is so emotionally wrought that one realizes that the war was as devastating to those on the opposite side, even more so when you consider that unlike them, we were never invaded.
I imagine, and this is speculation on my part, that Loren brought her own emotions and memories of her time during the war. She herself endured bombing raids and starvation during the war, and I think informs her performance, one that is deep and raw and natural and really one of the best performances of any actress. I think Two Women is Loren's finest hour as an actress.
Speaking of actors known for their beauty, Two Women also has to be among Jean-Paul Belmondo's best performances as well. Like Loren, he's playing against type: the dashing anti-hero of Breathless is remarkable as the meek, shy, intellectual Michele. One wouldn't think that someone who looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo wouldn't find wooing Cesira difficult, but Belmondo does so well as the man-child passionate about ideas who finds it hard to express his deep passion for the earthy Cesira.
I grant you I found Brown a bit annoying as the almost witless Rosetta, but I figure this is how the character was, so I'm not going to trash her or her performance. Still wasn't crazy over it, but the final third of the film, from the rape onwards, Brown is still powerful in her own way as Loren was in hers.
Director Vittorio De Sica brings wonderful touches in Two Women, not just in the performances he draws from Loren and Belmondo, but also in the subtle, symbolic moments (Michele's irritation as villagers constantly interrupt his telling of the story of Lazarus is amusing but also symbolic of how God calls the dead to life when Italy is about to die). There are moments of such devastation, such as when Michele attempts to calm and comfort his mother when both know that he will probably never return.
Of particular note is the rape scene, a blasphemy and sacrilegious act performed by 'liberators' in a sacred place, one where these women sought refuge. The rape is not graphic visually: we see the Moroccans encircling the defenseless women, then taking them by force, and then ending on Rosetta's shocked face as she screams for her mother, and then return to find them in total disarray. The fact that De Sica didn't make the rape graphic makes it all the more horrifying and devastating, because we the audience know what happened, but can only picture the trauma, the pain, the shock, and the violence towards two people we've come to know and care about.
Two Women is by no means a pretty picture: neo-realistic to its core, the dirt and rawness of the world is there in the open, with no glamour to protect us or them. We can relate to the story of a mother doing everything to protect her child, the only good thing she's done in her life, and are emotionally spent when despite all her efforts, that mother cannot protect her child. Two Women is a tragedy, a heartbreaking one, and with an astonishing, brilliant performance from Sofia Loren.
I'm glad we have Sofia Loren to admire for her beauty and for her lightness on screen. However, I'm also thankful that we have Two Women as proof that Sofia Loren is not just a great beauty, but a truly great actress of depth.
Grazie, Bella Sofia...