Two Women (1960) and A Special Day (1977)

This review of ‘Two Women’ and ‘A Special Day’ on DVD first appeared on We Are Cult on the 6th of November 2016

CultFilms, a new independent label specialising in world cinema, have released restored versions of two award-winning Sophia Loren movies: ‘Two Women’, from 1960 and ‘A Special Day’ from 1977 on DVD and BluRay.

‘Two Women’, directed by Vittorio De Sica, is a drama set during the Second World War. Loren plays Cesira, a shopkeeper in Rome. After an Allied bombing raid hits slightly too close to home, she takes her physically fragile daughter, Rosetta, played by Eleonora Brown, away from the city. They end up in the mountain village that Cesira was brought up in and there they meet Michele, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a graduate with communist sympathies who develops a bond with both Cesire and Rosetta. The village welcomes them and they are temporarily spared the dangers of a city under attack, but as the war reaches its climax, Michele is taken by the Germans and the mother and daughter suffer a violent attack by a gang of French soldiers.

Compared with De Sica’s earlier neo-realist films such as ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D.’, ‘Two Women’ lacks the grounding in reality and the meat of social commentary, but that is not to say that the movie is in any way irrelevant or shallow. In fact, De Sica’s 1960 film is heavy with allegorical symbolism and tragic, albeit melodramatic, narrative twists. The centre of the film is Loren’s performance, rightly awarded an Academy Award, in a role originally offered to Anna Magnani. The fact that Magnani nearly played the role is significant. The legendary actress had built her international fame playing roles in films such as Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ and had become almost a mascot of the Italian neo-realist movement, whilst two years after ‘Two Women’, Magnani would appear in Pier Pasolini’s ‘Mamma Roma’, a film that has a similar narrative arc and a similar set of themes to ‘Two Women’. You can see Magnani’s influence in the character of Cesira and in the way Loren acts the part.

Another performer who uses the film to try a different type of role is Jean-Paul Belmondo, a French star then best known for his portrayal of a criminal in Jean-Luc Godard’s  New Wave classic ‘Breathless’. In ‘Two Women’, he plays a quiet intellectual, his powerful left-wing political beliefs tempered by his pacifistic stoicism. As with Loren, Belmondo’s performance is subtle, affecting and transformative. In short, beyond the powerful sense of place and time and the brutal allegorical story, ‘Two Women’ is a key movie in the way it challenges the preconceptions of its two stars. In the case of Sophia Loren, this role, and the subsequent award, had the lasting effect of emphasising her qualities as a powerful and adaptable actress. De Sica’s movie is as notable for this shift in Loren’s career as anything that happens on screen, and the legacy of this shift is evidenced in the second release from CultFilms.

‘A Special Day’, directed by Ettore Scola, is set at the same time as ‘Two Women’, but is as city-based and interior-based as De Sica’s movie is rural. Set in a Rome apartment building in 1938 during a Nazi rally attended by Hitler, the movie focuses on Antonietta, a mother of six children and a wife of a crass supporter of Mussolini, played by Loren. When her family leave to attend the rally, she is left to tidy the chaos of their flat, but the escape of a pet bird leads her to an encounter with one of her neighbours Gabriele, a homosexual played by Marcello Mastroianni, as liberal and anti-fascist as Antonietta’s husband is authoritarian and misogynistic. Antonietta and Gabriele strike up a friendship that challenges her perception of the state she lives in and of her life in general.

The first thing that sprang to mind when watching this film was the debt it plays to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. The design and geography of the apartment block is a major part of this movie – Antonietta’s flat overlooking a central courtyard with her lover Gabriele’s directly opposite. In Hitchcock’s movie, the set was designed to create a sense of claustrophobic entrapment: Jimmy Stewart’s character imprisoned in his own flat which is, in turn, imprisoned within the apartment complex. In Scola’s film, the threat is, instead, from the outside. Throughout the film, as Antonietta and Gabriele talk you can hear the sounds of the rally in the streets outside: bombastic music, cheering, chanting and speeches. In this movie, therefore, the ‘Rear Window’ design brings together, holds, and (at least until the end of the movie) protects the two characters. To enhance this, and to give his film a feeling of place, Scola employs long, roving camera shots with a deep focus that defines the rooms and corridors of the apartment. However, in a technique similar to Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, the director occasionally breaches the solidity and logic of the sets through unexpected camera movements and angles. Like Akerman, Scola also uses a muted colour palate that here gives a sense of ‘pastness’ and matches the melancholic atmosphere of the two characters trapped in their domestic routines by the antipathy of society towards their gender.

There is something wrong about seeing the two stars known for their glamourous roles folding sheets (there are an amazing number of shots of folding, smoothing and flapping linen throughout the film) and cooking omelettes, but this wrongness adds to the spirit of the film. There is a temptation to feel that, as in ‘Two Women’, the actors are gaining more through their atypical performances than they are contributing to the film, but here it is different. The casting of Loren and Mastroianni, gives Antonietta and Gabriele an extra dimension, as if we can see the film-star glamour behind their oppressed, dour personalities. In short, the combination of Loren’s star appeal and Antonietta’s buttoned down, bottled up housewife adds a complex layering to the character.

Together, the two movies offer two similar presentations of life during Mussolini’s dictatorship. Each outlines different forms of resistance: in the earlier film the resistance is brash, stoic and visceral, in the latter film it is repressed and masked by the everyday domestic chores necessary to maintain ordinary lives. One is expansive, roaming and looks to the skies, the other is confined, claustrophobic and is incapable of seeing beyond the flat opposite. What I found most interesting, however, was how each film used, processed and reshaped the three star personas of Loren, Belmondo and Mastroianni, how these films used them to create complex and nuanced national allegories, but also how the actors themselves used the roles to alter the public perception of them. For Loren, these two films are key markers in her journey from icon to actor.

These are excellent choices for a dual release, not least because of their shared settings and the unusual roles of Sophia Loren. The films look pristine and both come with a selection of meaty documentaries that focus on both Loren and the two directors. If you’re interested in Italian cinema, or simply want to watch two intelligent and thought provoking movies then I would recommend them.

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