Viewed January 25th
At the close of World War II, an Italian widow and her daughter flee Rome for what they hope will be the safety of the country.
With his films The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., director Vittorio De Sica became one of the heroes of Italian Neorealism. In those films, non-professional actors were shot in authentic locations in order to portray realistic stories of Italian society during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Italian Neorealism films are, generally, about the present-tense world as the Italian people experienced it at that time. Two Women, by contrast, is set in the same World War II era of the Neorealism films but was produced later, in 1960. Its story, then, is not about the immediate present, but the recent past.
With this shift in the film’s relationship to time, other changes follow. The main actor is no longer a non-professional meant to evoke the lived reality of the present, but a movie star, Sophia Loren, who, by her mere presence, evokes a certain mythological structure. Further, the way De Sica shoots the topography of his Italian locations is, like his Neorealist films, taken off of the soundstage. But in Two Women, the landscape feels pared down and sparse to the point that it, too, takes on a mythological or archetypal quality. In a similar way, the brutal realism of some of the film’s scenes goes beyond realism to more of a heightened reality, a symbolic/psychological reality. This is particularly true of the scene in which Loren's thirteen year-old daughter character is gang raped in the bombed out church. It's a deeply complicated moment in which the daughter becomes not a girl, but one of the film's eponymous "two women".
Two Women was involved in a shift in Italian film led by Federico Fellini in films like La Strada in which the subject matter gradually shifted focus from social reality to the psychology of the individual. A movie star becomes necessary in order to sufficiently project that inner psychological life. And Sophia Loren in Two Women delivers an incredible movie star performance. Indeed, she won an Oscar for the role. Without having to interpret Loren’s character, the audience knows by looking at her eyes who this woman is. Loren's persona as an actress in other films begins that process and her performance in this film completes it to the point that her star power generates a cinematic surplus. As much as the title refers to the mother and the daughter, it could also refer to the two sides of Loren’s character: the earthily lustful woman and the protective mother. Loren doesn’t represent that dichotomy in Two Women, she is that dichotomy and the audience doesn’t have to put it in words, they see it as an obvious fact; it’s there on the screen. When Loren cries (when any true movie star cries), her eyes pushes the cinematic surplus into overdrive and the audience can’t help but absorb that sadness and feel this woman’s pain.