A riveting mother-daughter story, featuring one of filmdom's standout performances
There are so many different factors that go into making a movie, and when all of them click, magic happens. And in this week’s classic “Two Women” ("La ciociara”), the perfect story found the perfect actress (Sophia Loren) who found the perfect director (Vittorio De Sica) who found the perfect screenwriter (Cesare Zavattini), making for one powerful masterpiece. The first time I saw this shattering Italian drama decades ago, I was stunned by its strength and emotion, and I can honestly say I still get equally moved with every viewing – even rewatching it to prepare this post. “Two Women” was an enormous worldwide moneymaker, and it features an unforgettable performance by Loren that stands as one of cinema’s best and earned her countless accolades, including a historic Best Actress Academy Award. It's a film and performance that should be high on every movie lovers’ must-see list.
“Two Women” takes place in German-occupied Italy towards the end of World War II, and its plot is very basic: Young widowed mother and shopkeeper “Cesira” can no longer withstand the bombings in Rome and decides to leave the city with her 12 year old daughter and hide in the remote mountainside village where she was born until the war's end. The film follows their journey. The combination of Zavattini’s naturalistic dialogue (with small-talk and humor), De Sica’s direction (which feels observational rather than manufactured), and Loren’s emotionally raw performance, turn this tale about the devastation of war into what appears like a harrowing slice-of-life.
At the core of the story is the mother-daughter bond between “Cesira” and “Rosetta”. The now-widowed “Cesira”, a former peasant girl who married a man with money who took her to Rome, devotes everything to the well-being and happiness of her daughter. She showers “Rosetta” with affection, lovingly combs her hair, often boasts of her beauty, and even sends her to an expensive private school at a convent to give her the best education possible. “Rosetta” is her life and she will protect her at all costs. It's her worries over “Rosetta’s” health and safety that make “Cesira” decide to leave Rome and head for the hills.
They get to her tiny village where they find other Italian refugees, from farmers to city folk, all with different takes on life and the war. This includes “Michele”, an anti-fascist intellectual and communist sympathizer. “Rosetta” develops a fondness for him and looks up to him as a father figure, and he becomes smitten with “Cesira”. But as bombers fly overhead, soldiers occasionally pass through the village demanding food and drink, and flares are dropped from planes at night like falling stars to spy on troops, it becomes clear that safety no longer exists anywhere. An overbearing sense of danger makes everyone’s differences fall by the wayside (for the most part) as they each try to find food and survive while longing to return to a sense of normalcy. It gives viewers a glimpse at what civilians personally endured during the war, while making the case that nothing and no one can remain pure and innocent when touched by war.
“Two Women” was based on Alberto Moravia’s 1957 novel “La ciociara”, which was inspired by his personal experiences during WWII. The book’s title, “La ciociara”, became the film’s title in Italy, which loosely translates to “The Woman from Ciociaria” (Ciociaria was a term for a rural, mountainous province in central Italy). Loren and her film producer husband Carlo Ponti bought the film rights with the intention that she play “Rosetta” (who in the book, like Loren, was in her 20s). Loren enlisted Hollywood director George Cukor, and the idea was that Oscar-winning Italian actress and international star Anna Magnani play “Cesira” (a woman in her 50s). Cukor had trouble finding a screenwriter, as those who were approached all felt there was no story but just characters stuck in a situation. And Magnani wouldn't appear in the film so long as Loren played her daughter, complaining Loren was too overbearing onscreen and too tall. With Magnani out, Cukor dropped out as well.
Loren next approached De Sica, who had directed her in 1954's "The Gold of Naples" ("L'oro di Napoli"). As it turned out, Loren’s decision to bring the film to De Sica was the perfect one in countless ways. To begin with, he engaged Zavattini as screenwriter and then set out to persuade Magnani to accept the role of “Cesira” But Magnani still adamantly refused if Loren played her daughter (according to Loren's autobiography "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life", even Loren, who was friends with Magnani, tried to convince the actress to accept the role to no avail). Magnani finally said to De Sica, “If you really want Sophia to be in it, why don’t you get her to play the mother?”.
Something clicked in De Sica. If he made both characters a bit younger it could work. Sensing Loren's immense talent while directing her in “The Gold of Naples” , he knew she could do the part. Because Loren was only 25, his new plan was to make both characters younger than in the book – “Cesira” would now be in her late 30s and “Rosetta” not yet 13. And with Zavattini onboard, the film was now going to take on a more realistic hue. Loren would play the part wearing authentic peasant type clothing and no makeup.
Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini were two of the major forces behind Italian Neorealism, a movement during the 1940s and 1950s that brought a heightened, almost documentary sense of reality to the screen that changed cinema around the world. Several major landmarks of that movement were directed by De Sica and written by Zavattini, including “The Bicycle Thieves”, “Shoeshine”, and "Umberto D.”. They made De Sica world famous and established both he and Zavattini as two of the most important figures in neorealism and Italian cinema (you can read more about De Sica, Zavattini, and neorealism in my post on “The Bicycle Thieves” – just click on the film title to open that post). Neorealism aimed to show ordinary life with everyday people and issues, and having two of the fathers of that movement behind “Two Women” gives this film an extra authentic flavor.
“Two Women” is heavily infused with aspects of neorealism, including a simple plot, class differences, the hardships of life, location shooting, and a realistic approach to its story. Though several well-known actors star in "Two Women", true to neorealism, many non-actors are used in supporting and bit parts, and De Sica is exceptional at working with them. Just watch the people with little or no lines at the outdoor lunch scene, or the women chatting about Mussolini and the men playing cards in the weaving shed. A non-documentary film doesn't get much more real that that. And De Sica's ability to draw out truthful performances is only heightened by Zavattini’s dialogue, which flows in a completely conversational way. There's an ongoing feeling that the professional actors stepped into real-life and are now part of it, making the film gut-wrenchingly believable.
De Sica’s visuals reinforce that real-life feeling by very skillfully showing large and small groups of people fleshing out a location – whether it’s kids playing outside "Giovanni's" store, or people walking to and fro in the background during conversations, such as when "Michele" bids "Cesira" and "Rosetta" goodbye. De Sica's frames are filled with details, such as baskets and fabrics in the weaving shed, wildflowers on a hillside, or huts seen in the background. Everything helps point towards the reality and emotion he envisioned.
An excerpt from a letter De Sica wrote his daughter Emi during filming helps shed some light on his approach: “I went to the location where ‘Cesira’ will meet the French officers. The location I’ve chosen is really suited to the scene. It’s an inlet with a deep ditch in the middle. The walls of the mountain that surround the ditch are gray and black. This makes the scene much more dramatic”.
Both raised in Naples, De Sica and Loren shared the same sensibility and understood one another perfectly. He knew what Loren was capable of and she innately understood what he was looking for with regards to her character. They had a natural chemistry. De Sica saw beyond Loren’s beauty and felt if she was guided properly, she could give fantastic performances. And Loren, who never studied acting, has repeatedly stated that De Sica taught her everything about acting and films, and generously says he is greatly responsible for her career success. "Two Women" was the second film they worked on as director and actor, and they would work together in six more films.
There are but a handful of performances in cinema history that exhibit the art of screen acting at its utmost, and Sophia Loren as “Cesira” is one of them. Loren brings a universe of emotions to the part, none of which are artificial. Some are fleeting, like her myriad of feelings while visiting “Giovanni” when asking him to look after her store. Others linger, like the bittersweet expression in her eyes as she looks back at “Giovanni” and Rome from the train window, or the heartbreak she feels in the truck with her daughter. That short scene in the truck is one of Loren's many tour de force moments, as she sits silently suffering while trying to carry on a conversation with the driver as the realization and pain sinks in that "Rosetta" has been broken by previous events. It is a magnificent feat of acting, indicative of Loren's entirely nuanced and deeply complex performance.
From my thirty plus years studying and working as an actor I can honestly say, the depth of those shifting and solid emotions is not something one can plan, but is the result of becoming a character, inhabiting their attitude, emotions, and mannerisms. Loren brings such life to “Cesira” you can feel her soul. She is humorous, warm, dramatic, and nothing short of extraordinary. Her performance alone is reason enough to watch this amazing film.
Loren grew up with her mother and sister and no father, very poor in war-torn Italy, and knew only too well of starvation and bombs dropping (she has a permanent scar under her chin from shrapnel). She drew upon those years for the role, as she describes in her 1979 autobiography “Sophia: Living and Loving: Her Own Story”: “To prepare for the part, I opened the sluices of my memory, letting the bombing raids, the nights in the tunnel, the killings, the rapes and starvation and inhumanity wash back over me. I particularly concentrated on my mother as I remembered her during the war, her fears, connivances, and sacrifices, and especially the way she fiercely protected us against the scourges of the war”. De Sica guided Loren in allowing that pure emotion to flow out of her as “Cesira”.
Loren’s performance earned her a Best Actress Academy Award, making her the first performer in history to win an Oscar (or even be nominated) for a non-English speaking film. Because there was no precedent and she didn’t think she’d win, Loren opted to stay in Italy and not go to the ceremony. Cary Grant was the one who called to tell her she’d won. It took over thirty years for another actor to be nominated for a non-English performance (Roberto Benigni for the 1997 Italian film “Life is Beautiful”, and he also won). In addition to her Oscar, Loren won twenty additional Best Actress awards for “Two Women”, from the New York Film Critics and the Cannes Film Festival, to the British Academy Film and Television Award (BAFTA) and a David di Donatello Award. Overnight, this performance turned her from a movie star sex symbol into a highly respected and serious actress – which she remains.
Already a star before “Two Women”, Loren had appeared in Italian films beginning as an extra in 1950 and worked her way up to starring roles by 1953 with “Aida”. After finding fame and some acclaim in Italy, Hollywood beckoned, and her first Hollywood (and English-speaking) film was 1957’s “The Pride and the Passion” opposite Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra (although her second Hollywood film, “Boy on a Dolphin” was released first). She became one of the popular, voluptuous, big-busted leading lady sex symbols of the 1950s (along with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak, Jane Russell, Mamie Van Doren, and Diana Dors), Having made a dozen Hollywood films from 1957 to 1960, she had become internationally famous playing what she calls “confectionary roles”. Not only was “Two Women” a return to Italian films, but it was also an enormous departure from anything she’d done. It rewrote Loren's screen image.
Starting with this film, she began playing women who were not only sexy, but were strong, honest, sensitive, funny, and often carried a fiery spirit and motherly warmth. Even though she’s certainly a larger-than-life movie star, Loren somehow manages to make audiences feel she is real, like a friend. We don’t often think someone so exceptionally beautiful can be so talented, but Loren has it all. And her irresistible presence, talent and beauty have made her one of the most famous and popular international movie stars in history. I too, am completely swept up by her spell. You can read more about the life and career of Sophia Loren in my post on “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”, a film also directed by De Sica.
Jean-Paul Belmondo plays “Michele Di Libero”, the outspoken intellectual infatuated with “Cesira”. “Michele” is driven by his political convictions and Belmondo infuses a quietness masking intense emotions. Often afraid to speak up, he has outbursts when he's had enough, such as when reading from the Bible to non-attentive villagers, or the exquisite moment when he finally kisses “Cesira”. "Two Women" came just after Belmondo found international fame earlier that year with the groundbreaking French New Wave film "Breathless". Financing for “Two Women” partially came from France on the condition that a French star be cast, and Belmondo fit the bill (his voice was dubbed into Italian). He went on to become one of the biggest and most popular stars in all of French cinema.
Born to a sculptor father and fine art painter mother in the suburbs of Paris, Jean-Paul Belmondo was immersed in the arts from a very young age. After a brief but successful stint as an amateur boxer, he began studying acting, including three years at the Conservatoire of Dramatic Arts while working on stage. In 1956, he began appearing in small and supporting roles in movies, with his first leading role in 1958's "Les Copains du dimanche". 1960 marked Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece “Breathless" ("À Bout de Souffle”) – one of three major films that launched a new type of filmmaking known as the French New Wave, which influenced all of cinema (you can read more about that in my post on "The 400 Blows”). Belmondo’s starring portrayal in “Breathless" as a cool antihero and his unconventional looks (which Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called "hypnotically ugly”) established him as a major star and heartthrob, and helped create his tough, rebellious, unsentimental screen persona. He appeared in five more films that year alone, the last of which was “Two Women”, whose international success helped boost his worldwide fame. He continued working with more New Wave directors and became an icon of French New Wave cinema.
In 1964 Belmondo starred in “That Man From Rio”, a James Bond-ish comedy spy thriller and colossal success. Appearing in more commercial films alongside those from New Wave directors, his popularity only increased. He was also known for playing police officers in action thrillers, and for doing most of his own stunts. Belmondo refused to make films in Hollywood or in English, and nearly all of his approximately 80 films were French (with "Two Women” being one of the exceptions). His other notable films include "Pierrot Le Fou", "The Professional”, "Fear Over The City” (“Peur Sur La Ville"), "A Man And His Dog” (“Un Homme Et Son Chien”), "Borsalino", "The Finger Man” (“Le Doulos”), and "A Woman is a Woman" ("Une femme est une femme"). Early in his career, Belmondo was credited with capturing the style and imagination of France, was often compared to James Dean or Marlon Brando, and sometimes called "The Humphrey Bogart of France”. He was a French superstar.
Belmondo won France's Best Actor César Award for 1989's "Itinerary of a Spoiled Child" ("Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté"), two BAFTA Best Actor nominations, and received Life Achievement Awards from the Cannes Film Festival, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Venice Film Festival, the César Awards, and more. He was made a Chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite, promoted to Officier in 1986 and promoted to Commandeur in 1994. He was also made a Chevalier of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur, promoted Officier in 1991, and promoted to Commandeur in 2007. Married and divorced twice, rumored to have had many affairs, he also had well-publicized relationships with actresses Ursula Andress and Laura Antonelli. Jean-Paul Belmondo died in 2021 at the age of 88.
Eleonora Brown plays “Rosetta”, “Cesira’s” saintly daughter and Brown brings an innocence and fragility to this girl, making us worry that she’s in danger in this war-ridden world. The character goes through major changes, and Brown does a great job at making us feel “Rosetta’s” emotional struggles and transformation. Her shock when leaving the church is heartbreaking. Loren instinctively became protective of Brown, who was not yet 12 years old when cast, making sure no bad words or inappropriate things were said or talked about in Brown’s presence. Loren and Brown really do feel like a mother and daughter with a warm and loving chemistry, and the two became (and remain) lifelong friends.
Naples-born Eleonora Brown had an American father and a Neapolitan mother who met in Italy while he was working with the International Red Cross just after WWII. When Brown was 11 years old, she responded to a newspaper ad looking for girls in Naples to play the daughter of Sophia Loren in a film. Hundreds of girls showed up, and true to De Sica’s style of casting non-actors, he was searching for someone with a certain look. As soon as he spotted Brown, who was childlike and had the right gaze in her eyes, he felt he’d found “Rosetta”. He had Brown perform different emotions and she was cast. “Two Women” was her first film, and then De Sica cast her in his next film, 1961's "The Last Judgement", after which she appeared in eight more films through 1968, including the 1967 British film "The Sailor from Gibraltar" and the 1967 Italian films "The Tiger and the Pussycat" and "Cuore matto... matto da legare". She then retired from acting, making a return in 2018 in "Un amore così grande" ("Such a Great Love"), her final film to date. She was married and widowed once. As of the writing of this post, Eleonora Brown is 74 years old.
Another well-known actor cast in “Two Women” is Raf Vallone who plays “Giovanni”, the coal dealer and friend of “Cesira’s” late husband who agrees to watch her store while she’s away. “Giovanni” appears only briefly in the film, but Vallone is excellent at presenting the character as a fleshed out human being, making the most of his commanding presence, rugged good looks, and even a bit of his charm. Vallone was one of Italy’s top stars of the 1950s and 1960s.
Calabria, Italy-born Raf Vallone played semiprofessional soccer and studied law and philosophy before becoming a sports and culture journalist and film critic. Though not interested in acting at the time, he worked as an extra in the 1942 Italian film "We are the Living”. In 1948, he was hired by film director Giuseppe De Santis to help do research for what would become the 1949 neorealist classic "Bitter Rice” (“Riso amaro"), and De Santis cast Vallone as one of the film's leads. It became an international hit, and thus began Vallone’s film career. Along with film and TV work, Vallone also took to the stage, most notably in the 1958 French production of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge". He also appeared in non-Italian films, including those made in Germany, France, and America (his first English-speaking film was 1961's "El Cid”, also starring Loren). Vallone accrued 93 film and TV credits through the year 2000, and his other notable films include "The Italian Job", "The Godfather, Part III", "The Cardinal", "Harlow", "The Greek Tycoon”, "Nevada Smith", "The Other Side of Midnight", and the 1962 film version of "A View from the Bridge", which earned him a Best Actor David di Donatello Award. He married actress Elena Varzi, and remained married until his death. Raf Vallone died in 2002 at the age of 86.
In 1989, Loren reprised the role of "Cesira" in an Italian TV movie remake of "Two Women” titled "La ciociara". Actress Sydney Penny played “Rosetta", Andrea Occhipinti played “Michele", and Robert Loggia played "Giovanni".
There are many bad quality prints (grainy, poor sound, etc.) of "Two Women", so make sure to watch a remastered version if possible. Loren dubbed the film in both Italian and English, but as always, I suggest everyone watch it in its native Italian with subtitles (if possible) to get a true feel for the film as intended. For those viewing DVDs or BluRays, I've only found two remastered versions, one is a Region 1 DVD, and the other a Region Free BluRay (which will play the film on a Region 1 player, but not the special features). I don't recommend any other discs. Here is what these two look like:
Some films and performances stay with you long after you watch them, and this week’s mighty drama is a shining example. It’s an unforgettable film with an indelibly affecting performance by Sophia Loren. You may need to grab a tissue or two (or three) for this one. Enjoy “Two Women”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
In case you were wondering about the Moroccan soldiers, they were colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps known as Moroccan Goumiers. Before the end of the war, Allies moved towards Rome against the German forces in Italy in what became known as the Battle of Monte Cassino. Immediately after the battle, some French Moroccan troops committed mass rapes and murders in the surrounding hills of the rural areas of Southern Lazio, between Naples and Rome.
When De Sica began explaining the rape scene to Brown, Loren stopped him and reminded him she’s a young girl and doesn't understand those things. To help Brown understand how to act in the scene, he then described the Moroccan characters to Brown as hating women and wanting to be mean and do bad things like hit and punch them, which Brown could comprehend.
For the final scene in which “Rosetta” cries, Brown wasn’t able to cry, so Di Sica told her he just received a telegram that her mother and father died in an accident. Brown began crying and couldn't stop, to the point where they had to stop filming. De Sica then told her he made it up and that it wasn’t true. When interviewed about the incident, Brown said she didn’t hate De Sica for doing that, and that in spite of being so young, she understood he did it to help her performance and get her to cry, and has since repeatedly said that she is incredibly grateful for the life changing experience of working on this film.