One of Vittorio De Sica's greatest films, featuring one of Sophia Loren's finest performances, Two Women is the sort of film that even European studios don't make anymore, simply because it isn't an inherently commercial project. De Sica, who burst into international prominence with his film Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves/The Bicycle Thief, 1948), and then consolidated his reputation with such masterpieces as Umberto D. (1952), Ieri, Oggi, Domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, ), and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), in addition to his work as an actor in more than 150 films from 1917 to 1975, created one of his most compelling and deeply sympathetic films with Two Women, which deservedly won a Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Language Film of 1961. The film also resulted in an Academy Award for Loren as Best Actress, as well as Best Actress at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Why is it forgotten today, one wonders? First of all, it is in black and white, and in the hyper-colorized 21st century cinema universe, monochrome severely limits a film's potential audience. Then, too, the film is a deft blend of comedy and tragedy, and for audiences who want a safe middle emotional ground, this film simply doesn't offer that artificial safety net.
Structurally, the film is simple: Cesira (Loren) and her young daughter, Rosetta (Eleanora Brown), flee Rome to escape the Allied bombing during World War II, hoping to return to the village of Cesira's birth. Numerous events, some trivial, some major, happen during their journey. Cesira attracts the attention of Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young man who is kind and attentive, but the war predictably interrupts their romance. In the film's most harrowing sequence, both Cesira and Rosetta are raped simultaneously in a church by a group of renegade soldiers; De Sica stages the sequence in a horrific series of close-ups, as Cesira and Rosetta, pinned to the ground, are unable to help each other, but can only watch as both are violated. In the aftermath of the rape, Cesira suffers a mental breakdown. Now a shadow of her former self, Cesira has no idea how to resume her former life. In the film's tragic denouement, Michele is shot and killed by German soldiers, and Cesira and Rosetta are left to console each other as best they can. De Sica handles the film superbly in each sequence, generous to the actors, knowing precisely where to place the camera for maximum impact. Some viewers objected to the film's episodic structure, but in this, Two Women mimics life itself. De Sica's career as a director is uneven, and he was always in debt due to an insatiable appetite for gambling, which led him to make a number of films that were beneath his considerable talents. But with Two Women, he is absolutely true to his material, and Loren's performance reminds one of Anna Magnani at her most luminous. Two Women is a film to cherish, to view repeatedly, and to remember.