Two Women (Blu-ray Review)5 Dec, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Eleanor Brown, Raf Vallone.
Given its reputation for, among other things, having won Sophia Loren the Oscar while establishing her as an international superstar, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women has been insulted via prints that were big-time wretched for as long as I can remember. Assuming it didn’t fall into public domain (I’ve never been quite certain), it might as well have, which means that the prospect of a new Blu-ray taken from a recent restoration sounds like a candidate for huzzahs. The payoff, though, is somewhat ironic. Compared to what’s been around, the visual result is on the high side of passable, with some room for improvement. Yet overall, this release is still borderline exceptional, thanks to some bonus extras that surprised me.
First, the movie. Something of a comeback vehicle for director De Sica (and this wouldn’t be the last time), Women cast Loren in a demanding role that might have been played by an older actress: that of a widowed Rome merchant who leaves town for the countryside with her young-adolescent daughter (Eleanora Brown) after gauging the two may be safer from dropping wartime bombs at a time when Allied liberation isn’t far away. Instead, the two just miss getting hit by German aircraft bullets before they can even reach their hilly destination, which kind of sets the tone for the tragedy that follows. Among the villagers they meet up with in what turns out to be a kind of war-enforced commune is a young intellectual played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in wire-rims. This must have made quite an impression on art house fanciers at the time, coming so soon after he played the iconographic hood in Godard’s Breathless.
At the time, Loren was coming off a splashy four-year Hollywood launch opposite such well-established or currently hot American actors as Cary Grant, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Anthony Quinn, Tab Hunter and John Gavin — yet only the second of two Grant teamings (in the tough-to-resist Houseboat) had made a dent at the box office. In terms of American acceptance, Women’s timing couldn’t have been better because by the time it reached U.S. theaters in the spring of 1961, she had El Cid waiting in the wings with a subsequent December opening, which turned out to be a smash. Beyond that, Loren was thus able to add Chuck Heston to her co-star roster and become the first performer to win an Oscar for a foreign language release from the fruits of a single year.
Her character here is a widowed mother first and a sex bomb second — though because she isn’t obvious or self-conscious about her hotness, is all the more sexy for that. Early on, she has a dalliance with a married man played by Raf Vallone, whose appealing screen presence is missed when mom-and-daughter head for the hills. But though Loren likes him, their quickie plays more like an attempt to get away from the stress of falling bombs, which is formidable enough. Though ’61 was the year of Oscar-nominated Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass), Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Piper Laurie (The Hustler), this is one of those movies where an actress seems to be headed for a likely Oscar win throughout until one transcendent scene — this one is fairly late in the story — removes all doubt.
The supplements, which are somewhat “stealth” in terms of ballyhooing ad hype the way Criterion’s can be, are a treat. First, there’s a 54-minute doc/interview with Loren (who kept working with De Sica after he’d showcased her in The Gold of Naples), and how many times do we get to see her talking at length and even meeting her sister while being filled with nostalgic warmth over film clips that are heavy on frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni? There’s also the wonderful 2009 documentary Vittorio D., which in 93 minutes substantively covers De Sica’s career as actor, family man, gambling addict, occasional political activist and director, necessarily dividing the last category between the neorealist masterpieces like Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (all written or co-written by Women’s Cesare Zavattini) and relatively lighter fare. The portrait opens with ancient archival footage of the handsome De Sica on stage performing a song-and-patter act that wouldn’t have been out of place on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — something not all that easy to reconcile with Bicycle. A fairly amazing lineup of interviewees includes Shirley MacLaine, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, Leonard Maltin, De Sica children from two marriages, John Landis, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Ettore Scola and Lina Wertmuller.
Other than the fact that he’s always a personable interview, I couldn’t figure out what the hell Eastwood was doing here — completely forgetting that he took a role in the De Sica contribution to The Witches anthology pic from 1966, just before the Leone spaghetti Westerns hit full force in America and the actor was wondering where his career was going post-“Rawhide.” Well, better a De Sica vignette than co-starring with Mr. Ed (which Eastwood did around this time as well), though it’s true that The Witches and The Condemned of Altona and MacLaine’s Woman Times Seven and A Place for Lovers found the director at relatively low ebb or worse in the mid-to-late ’60s (though you won’t see me putting down After the Fox, due to my Victor Mature idolatry).
Fortunately, De Sica came back with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which took the foreign-language Oscar — a sweetly poetic turn of circumstances in that the academy had taken the extraordinary move of voting Shoeshine a special award of merit way back when because at the time, it didn’t even have a foreign category. Garden, to my surprise, hasn’t yet gotten a Blu-ray release in any region — even though, on top of everything else, it is one beautiful-looking movie. Of course, Two Women, up until recently, was another major MIA — and if the transfer isn’t up to, say, Criterion standards (see Italy’s I Knew Her Well, which contends as “find” of the year), it’ll certainly do, given the eyesores we’ve had to suffer through for decades.