The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Two Women

Does the Academy Awards tend to give an actress more credit for a role when she plays down her looks, like Charlize Theron in Monster or Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry?  I'm guilty of it as well, seeing a gorgeous actress and forgetting at times what a strong actress they can be.  But I do think there's something to it that when their looks are left by the wayside for a part people take them more seriously.  Unfortunate yes, but what are you gonna do about it?  I'm trying to decide if 1960's Two Women applies to that premise.

Italian star Sophia Loren won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance of a widowed mother trying to get her 12-year old daughter through war-torn Italy late in WWII. It was the first Oscar ever given for a performance in a foreign language film, and one Loren fully deserved.  She's not playing against type because regardless the movie, serious or comedy, Loren was able to get into that character.  But it is a powerhouse performance that tries to dumb down her look, putting her in plain clothes with no makeup.  All I could think though was 'Good luck trying to make Sophia Loren look like an Italian peasant.'  But does her performance apply?  As of now, I'm thinking not at all, it's just a great performance.

Late in WWII, widowed mother Cesira (Loren) lives in Rome running a little grocery with her 12-year old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown).  The war is not going in the Axis' favor, and Rome is being bombed more regularly, forcing Cesira to make the decision to leave the city until things quiet down.  With her daughter, they head to Cesira's village where she grew up as a child.  There much of her family waits, including many refugees and one intellectual (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who can't wait for the Germans and Italians to lose the war. Their biggest problems with so many people are finding enough to eat and drink every day, but as the war approaches the isolated country village, Cesira finds out that no matter how much you prepare, you can't prepare for everything.

Many of the WWII movies I've reviewed are of the front line soldier variety where we see the war from the perspective of a soldier or his unit in a certain battle.  While the war drives the story in 'Two,' this is a story that focuses almost completely away from the battles and the front lines other than a few strafing runs or appearances of lost patrols looking for help.  Director Vittorio De Sica creates this vision of war-torn Italy and lets the characters go to work.  It's a world where everyone is basically on their own for their own survival, and dangers lurk around every corner.  There aren't so much Allies and Axis soldiers as good and bad on both sides, a situation that comes into play late in the movie.  Everyone is affected by the war, and for these characters, they don't care who wins as long as the war ends.

Off and on throughout the movie, I didn't always get the sense of the danger that hung over Italy and more specifically Cesira's life in her village.  The biggest problem facing the single mother and her extended refugee family is food, finding enough so everyone can eat.  The war is the cause of this shortage, but it feels like a far-off war at many times.  More time is spent in the relationship between Cesira and Belmondo's Michele character, an intellectual who shakes his head at the whole premise of the war while also falling madly in love with Cesira (do you blame him?).  German characters drift into the story and leave -- along with two British commandos and a Russian deserter -- but the focus is more on the day-to-day survival caused by the war.

Where Loren won the Oscar for me was in the last half hour as Cesira and Rosetta return home to Rome via the country roads, the Americans and Allied soldiers advancing past them on tanks, trucks and jeeps.  This is where the real horrors of war come into play which I'm not going to spoil here.  It comes as a surprise because to a certain point we've been lulled to sleep by the relative safety of the country village.  But here Loren's mother has to protect her daughter in a way she's only considered, never thinking it would come true.  Loren's performance as a whole was excellent, feeling like a real mother with only two real concerns, her daughter and herself, but the final 30 minutes or so sets the character apart from other similar characters.

As for Loren's looks, I'm not sure if it is actually possible to dull them down.  Her hair is unkempt, she wears no makeup, and she wears loose, baggy clothing (if cut a little low at the neckline), all in an attempt to make her look like a run of the mill Italian peasant single mother.  Yeah, good luck with that.  I'll say this, natural is a good look for her.  If interested, watch the movie at Youtube starting with Part 1 of 13 with Italian subtitles. Early in the movie I struggled to keep up with the speed and lightning pace of the subtitles, but you get into a rhythm soon enough.  Also look for Raf Vallone in a one-scene cameo. Watch this one for a moving portrayal of WWII's effect on the civilians, especially Loren in one of her best performances.

Two Women (1960): ***/**** 

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