Two Women by Vittorio de Sica (1960)

TwoWomenThe threat of sexual violence pervades throughout Vittorio de Sica’s astute and complete La Ciociara, for which Sophia Loren won an Oscar. Throughout the film, de Sica captures the jittery, overhead threat of war; whether in Rome or in the countryside, Italians are avoiding bombs, listening to sirens, killed by bombs or otherwise sheltering in the ruins of bombed-out places. Likewise, the widow Cesira and her fragile adolescent daughter Rosetta can’t escape the predatory climate engendered by war. Her husband’s former “friend” persuades Cesira to have sex with him with the promise that he will marry her when his wife is killed by a bomb (a most ludicrous and over-the-top proposition handled masterfully by the director – a perfect blend of menace and irony). During the women’s flight from Rome and their exile, they are ogled and threatened by old men, German soldiers, Italian soldiers, English soldiers, Italian deserters and truck drivers – such is the the assault on them that even the bombs which almost kill them at close range seem tame by comparison. When finally they meet Michele, one of the few decent men left (and an ardent pacifist) he lets Cesira now that he feels less than a man, “castrated,” because he won’t participate in the violence. Through the journey of the women and the totality of the attendant stories—the bombs, the raids, the evacuees, the constant search for flour and sugar, the hunger of children, and the gangs of lost soldiers roaming the countryside—de Sica presents a devastating and clear-eyed picture of war as fought on the ground by civilians. He pays particular attention to the ways in which the war destroys the Italian soul —the destruction of its architecture, the scarcity of the delicious foods for which it is known, the desperate maneuverings of shopkeepers, tradesmen, craftswomen and academics —and decries the state in which the Italian pursuit of a good and healthy life is obliterated, along with personal dignity. Most of all, the film shows that while women bear the brunt of the violence of war, they are also the moral core, the ones who keep the whole enterprise from becoming entirely devoid of life. From the astonishing woman offering up her breast milk to anyone hungry, to Rosetta’s indiscriminate kindness toward strangers, to Cesira’s practical and fiery strength, and to the mothers who tend fire, create warmth and maintain a sense of order and purpose, it seems that it is the women who uphold Italy’s best virtues.

La Ciociara (Two Women), dir. Vittoria De Sica, 121 mins. In Italian. Restored by Fondazione Scuola Nazionale di Cinema and Mediaset. Part of the 2015 De Sica Series presented by Cinema Italia, San Francisco.