Pacific Cinematheque is currently celebrating the Leading Ladies of Italian Cinema. I went to a double feature on Friday night. It was fantastic (and heartbreaking).
La Strada was absolutely devastating (said staring you straight in the eye), while Two Women was absolutely devastating (said while holding my hands to my heart and swooning).
La Strada 1954
Gelsomina is sold by her mother to an abusive circus strongman, Zampanò. Fun times. They roam around Italy, and he gets drunk and picks up other women. Gelsomina (a naive country girl) gets to see some of the things the world has to offer, but is unable to untether herself from Zampanò's company. This is among the most unrelentingly depressing films I have ever seen, with very little offered in the way of redemption or hope, but it is worth watching just for Giulietta Masina's performance as Gelsomina. She says little, but her expression changes from delight to despair and back again with such quickness, and such purity, that I could watch her forever.
Two Women (1960)
Two Women is beautiful - its black and white cinematography richly detailed and textured. Set in Italy during World War II, the story follows Cesira and Rosetta, a mother and her 13-year old daughter, as they take refuge from the bombing of Rome in the Italian countryside. I was completely brought into the time and place; in one scene the pair are walking down a country road when a fighter plane sends lines of bullets down towards them - I ducked.
The pace of the film is perfect, allowing relationships and characters to unfurl before tragic events in the last act level all of it. I felt cut in half when that point came, but still so connected to everything that was happening on screen. Sophia Loren plays Cesira, and this role won her the first ever Best Actress Academy Award for a non-English speaking performance. Loren is sultry, but eons away from a sex-pot charicature; she is strong, intense, vulnerable, smart, and warm. Two women is about the catastrophe that is war, but at a deeper level it is about becoming a woman, with everything that means.