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In director Vittorio De Sica's acclaimed drama Two Women (1960), set in 1943 Rome, the city is a continual target of Allied bombs. With a fragile, sheltered 13-year-old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) to protect, widow Cesira (Sophia Loren) decides to leave her small grocery store and return to the relative safety of her native village Ciociara, in the Italian countryside.
Though there are assorted dangers along the way, the women arrive safely in Ciociara where they reintegrate themselves into the life of the community. They befriend Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the earnest, Marxist son of a local farmer and help two British soldiers stranded in the countryside. It is when Cesira and Rosetta decide to return to Rome to escape the food shortages and more bombs that De Sica's film shows the misery of war and how it almost destroys the loving bond between mother and daughter. The villagers scatter, setting out on different paths to safety and Michele is taken by a ragtag group of German soldiers as a guide. In an isolated church where the women stop to rest they are brutally raped by Allied Moroccan soldiers, an act which turns the innocent, loving Rosetta into a blank-eyed stranger to her own mother.
Vittorio De Sica's earthy connection to the real travails of Italians living in postwar Europe helped create the film genre of Italian Neo-Realism and masterworks like Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). The film was adapted from a 1957 novel by Alberto Moravia, La Ciociara, which translates to "The Woman From Ciociara." The novel was inspired by Moravia and his wife's experiences as antifascists during World War II.
Sophia Loren won the first ever Oscar® awarded to a non-American actress in a foreign language film for her role in Two Women as well as the Best Actress Award at Cannes and from the British Film Academy and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Stage fright kept Loren from actually attending the Academy Awards to claim her statuette, so Greer Garson accepted the award on Loren's behalf, heralding "this wildly beautiful and talented girl."
Loren attributed her searing, acclaimed performance in Two Women to "sensory recall" and her own painful memories of wartime when Loren's mother had fiercely protected her two illegitimate daughters from the terror in her hometown of Pozzuoli, near Naples.
In Warren G. Harris's biography of Loren, she is quoted as saying "With my own memories to draw upon, you would think I would have had an easy time of it. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman."
Loren credited De Sica with emboldening her "to go far beyond where I had ever gone before." She spoke fondly of the confidence the director gave her to pull off such a difficult role and attested to seeing De Sica crying along with her character at several points during the making of the film.
The great Italian legend Anna Magnani -- an illegitimate child like Loren who had starred in De Sica's Teresa Venerdi (1941) -- was originally slated for the lead in Two Women, with Loren cast as her daughter. But Magnani, who was fifty-three at the time, refused what she saw as the professional indignity of playing Loren's mother. The extent of Magnani's jealousy of being possibly usurped by Loren as the celebrated star of the Italian cinema was affirmed after she finally saw Two Women. Magnani remarked that Loren had copied all of her own gestures and mannerisms.
The film's producer was Carlo Ponti, who had been romantically involved with Sophia since she was a teenager. Ponti eventually obtained a divorce from his first wife in Mexico, a divorce the Italian Catholic Church refused to acknowledge, declaring Sophia and Carlo's relationship bigamous.
The original director attached to Two Women was George Cukor, though Ponti had hoped to film on location in Ciociara with either De Sica or Roberto Rossellini directing. It didn't work out but Ponti compensated Cukor by hiring him to direct Loren's upcoming film, a Western based on a Louis L'Amour novel, Heller in Pink Tights (1960).
To raise the money to make Two Women, Ponti worked on a coproduction with a French company. But French regulations required that one of the stars be of French nationality. And so Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had recently delighted audiences in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), was retained to play the part of Michele. Another actor had to dub the French-speaking actor's lines in Italian, though Loren did her own dubbing into English for the American release of Two Women.
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini from a novel by Alberto Moravia
Cinematography: Gabor Pogany, Mario Capriotti
Production Design: Gastone Medin
Music: Armando Trovajoli
Cast: Sophia Loren (Cesira), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michele), Eleonora Brown (Rosetta), Raf Vallone (Giovanni), Renato Salvatori (Florindo).
by Felicia Feaster