BOOTLEG FILES 296: “Two Women” (1960 Italian classic starring Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo).

LAST SEEN: It is available on several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: The English-dubbed version has been released by several labels specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Some people might think the film is in the public domain.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A digitally remastered version of the original Italian-language version is long overdue.

In the late 1950s, Hollywood found itself with two larger-than-life Italian actresses and no idea how to use them. One was Anna Magnani, a fiery personality who won an Academy Award for the 1955 film version of “The Rose Tattoo.” But the non-glamorous, high-decibel Magnani did not fit easily into the roles being offered by the studios during this era. The other star was Sophia Loren, the ultra-glamorous screen presence who kept getting cast in crummy films that served little purpose except to show off her va-va-voom appeal.

Paramount Pictures came up with what it felt was an ideal vehicle for both actresses: a screen version of Alberto Moravia’s 1958 novel “La Ciociaria,” published in English as “Two Women.” The book, which focused on a widowed mother trying to protect her young daughter from the violence that destroyed Italy in World War II, was an international bestseller. George Cukor, who directed Magnani in “Wild is the Wind” and Loren in “Heller in Pink Tights,” was assigned to helm the project.

However, an unexpected obstacle popped up: Magnani refused to be in a film where Loren played her daughter. Magnani argued that casting the voluptuous Loren in the role of an innocent and virginal teenager was not credible. Magnani also balked at being cast as the parent of an adult child, even though she was old enough to be Loren’s mother. Unable to proceed without Magnani, Paramount dropped the project.

Carlo Ponti, the Italian producer and husband of Sophia Loren, snatched up the rights to “Two Women” and arranged for Vittorio De Sica to direct the film. However, Ponti shared Paramount’s view on the commercial potential for a Magnani-Loren vehicle. But De Sica ran into the proverbial brick wall when trying to convince Magnani to play Loren’s mother. Magnani wanted the role, but not Loren. However, with Ponti as the producer, Loren was already assured to be in the film.

At this point, an off-the-cuff comment took the project in a completely different direction. Magnani, fed up with De Sica’s insistence on having Loren in the film, blithely suggested that he should consider casting Loren in the mother’s role. De Sica had not previously considered this – Loren was 25 at the time, but the challenge of having her play an older and non-glamorous woman was too intriguing. Almost immediately, De Sica and Ponti agreed to drop Magnani from “Two Women” and to give the role of the mother to Loren.

“Two Women” turned out to be one of the most remarkable films in De Sica’s long and distinguished career. The film is extraordinary in depicting wartime Italy as seen through the eyes of the apolitical ordinary people whose lives are uprooted (and, in many cases, destroyed) by the numerous fighting forces who run roughshod over their land. From a U.S. perspective, the film is unapologetically harsh in viewing the Allied liberation as a destructive and demeaning force. For those who only know World War II from history books and propaganda films, “Two Women” provides a much-needed human perspective from the center of the conflict.

“Two Women” opens in Rome in the midst of an Allied bombing raid. The devastation to the city has an unsettling effect on Cesira, the widowed owner of a small grocery store. The bombing raids routinely destroy her inventory, but more damaging is the unsettling effect on her 12-year-old daughter Rosetta. Determined to protect her daughter from the chaos, Cesira closes her store and takes her daughter from Rome to her native Ciociaria.

Mother and daughter set out by train, but an Allied attack destroys the rail line. Cesira and Rosetta leave the train and travel by foot, reaching the mountaintop village where Cesira grew up. They discover that a stream of refugees flooded into the tiny village, but improvised accommodations are made for Cesira and Rosetta and they are welcomed into the community.

As the months pass, the village finds itself at the crossroads of various forces engaged in war. Members of the Italian army try vainly to recruit young men to fight in Mussolini’s ill-fated military. Two British soldiers pass through on a secret reconnaissance mission. A small number of Nazis commandeer food and take one of the village’s young men as an unwilling guide through the mountains. The U.S. army passes through as the official liberators, with soldiers throwing candy to the Italian villagers – and one soldier vainly tries to convince Cesaria to lift her skirt for a photograph.

Cesira believes the worst of the war has passed, and she arranges to return with Rosetta to Rome. In their journey back, they seek refuge at an abandoned, bombed out church. In this sanctuary, they are attacked and raped by a group of Moroccan soldiers who are part of the Allied liberating forces. The assault nearly destroys both mother and daughter, but they eventually find the strength to push forward and return to their home in Rome.

In adapting the Moravia novel to accommodate Loren’s casting, De Sica lowered Rosetta’s age from late-teen to 12-going-on-13. This also required changing the book’s ending, where Rosetta drifts into prostitution; in the film, Rosetta tiptoes into dating in the aftermath of the rape. To explain how the widowed Cesira could be seemingly youthful and successful enough to run her own store, dialogue was crafted for Loren to state how her character married a much older man whose passing was more than a little convenient.

Beyond these changes, “Two Women” retains the visceral power of Moravia’s text. The dialogue is frank and often raw in reflecting the honest emotions of the characters as they face the uncertainties of death, hunger and deprivation. The film also offers unexpectedly funny moments when Loren joins the village women in speculating about Mussolini’s sexual prowess, and later when she spies a shirtless, muscular Russian defector working in an Italian field. “Who knew they made them like that?” she says, admiring the Russian’s physique.

“Two Women” also provides a touching subplot involving Cesira’s friendship with a strident young college student whose father is a village elder. Cesira insists her interest is not romantic – she openly acknowledges not being attracted to a younger man – but her emotional distress when the student is taken by the Nazis shows that her attraction is more than academic.

As Cesira, Loren pulled out all stops and created an extraordinary tour de force performance. Her character is a full-dimensional being of deep spirit and hair-trigger emotions, and the extremes of her personality create a force of energy that often spirals brilliantly out of control. In the film’s now-legendary conclusion, when she berates unsympathetic soldiers over what happened to her daughter, Loren lets loose in a rush of anger, frustration, despair and misery that forms an emotional explosion of volcanic proportions.

Although the film belongs to Loren, De Sica also brought forth remarkably subtle supporting performances from 13-year-old Eleanora Brown as Rosetta (the pain in her eyes from the first penetration of the rape is tragically unsettling) and, in off-beat casting, Jean-Paul Belmondo as the college student. With unflattering eyeglasses and an air of scholastic disdain for the earthy village lifestyle, Belmondo plumbs the intellectual and emotional complexity of his doomed character.

“Two Women” was released in Italy in 1960. In 1961, Joseph E. Levine brought the film the U.S. via his Embassy Pictures Corp. It was released in both the original Italian-language version and in a well-done English-dubbed version (Loren did her own voice performance for the dubbed version while uncredited American actors filled in the other parts). The film was a major success and, as everyone knows, Loren made history by winning the Best Actress Oscar – a first for a performance in a foreign-language film. Loren would remake the film in a 1988 production for Italian television, but this version was not considered to be successful.

For years, duped prints of the English-dubbed version of “Two Women” have been circulating on video labels specializing in public domain titles. A few web sites have the complete version for real-time viewing. If “Two Women” is a public domain film, I would very surprised. The circulating prints range from satisfactory to mediocre, and a properly remastered presentation of the original Italian-language version is long overdue.

But even viewed in a crummy bootleg video, “Two Women” is still a powerful experience to behold. Of the nearly 300 films that I’ve seen as part of The Bootleg Files series, this is one of the very best.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

Posted on August 14, 2009 in Bootleg Files, Features by

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