Although Italy did have a nascent film industry in the silent era–its most significant contribution being Cabiria, which influenced segments of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance–it never achieved the heights of other nations. Its mediocrity was further cemented by the Fascists’ 1922 “March on Rome” and their assumption of power. From then on, artists and intellectuals were subject to suspicion. Some, like politician Giacomo Matteotti and Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, were assassinated or imprisoned until death; others, like writer Alberto Moravia, author of the 1957 novel on which Vittorio de Sica’s film is based, were luckier.
While his peer Italo Calvino is more familiar today in the U.S., Alberto Moravia was one of the most widely read and translated Italian writers from the 1950s-1960s. When he was barely into his twenties, he self-published his first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones/Time of Indifference) in 1929, setting off a literary firestorm in Italy. The darkly comic novel of a corrupt and crumbling bourgeois family earned Moravia a coveted spot on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of banned books maintained by the Vatican. Politically, the Fascist state saw Moravia as a bit of a dilettante with leftist leanings; that is, a corrupting influence on Italian culture, to be sure, but not really worth their time otherwise, and certainly not a threat to match that posed by their Marxist opponents.
Because of this, Moravia wouldn’t really hit his creative stride until after the war, when most of his greatest works were written–La ciociara (Two Women), Il conformista (The Conformist), La noia (Boredom), Il disprezzo (Contempt)–most of which were transformed into classics of European cinema during the 60s and early 70s. La ciociara (literally The Woman From Ciociaria but released in the U.S. as Two Women) was the first adaptation to be filmed. It was based on the experiences of Moravia and his wife, writer Elsa Morante, as they took refuge from the war in the countryside east of Rome, in the hills of Ciociaria. There, the couple slept in barns and lived off the hospitality of the rural village communities, Elsa Morante working on the initial framework of what would become her great first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars). The awful events in Ciociaria that followed provided Moravia with his own inspiration.
On the night of May 19th, 1944, as the hills and valleys around Ciociaria were liberated by the Allies, Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps went on a celebration spree to commemorate their victory over the Germans. The numbers are still contested, but it’s estimated that between 2,500-4,500 Italian women, including children and the elderly, were raped in the region. Estimates of the murdered go as high as 800, some of these the rape victims themselves but the majority being family members who tried to intervene. For hours, the hills echoed with screams and gunshots. Eventually, 15 Moroccans were court-martialed and shot for their participation, with scores of others sentenced to hard labor. In Italy, the raped came to be known as “marocchinate”, or roughly “those who’ve been ‘Moroccaned’.” Concerned about the brewing public relations firestorm, it is rumored that the Allies clandestinely arranged for women from North Africa to be brought in and “serve” in the expeditionary corps’ camp as “volunteers” in hopes of preventing future incidents. The “marocchinate” later received compensatory pensions from the Italian government for their suffering. Moravia shows the origins of this suffering for what it is: random, indifferent, “liberating.” Obviously a film from 1960 cannot push the same boundaries as its fiction counterparts, but de Sica’s naturalistic approach to the material does justice to the indictments in Moravia’s source text.
In a genre dominated by plots about Roman males, La ciociara stands apart from other neorealist films through its emphasis on women protagonists and provincial Italians. Cesira and Rosetta drift from place to place, directionless and in survival mode, wanting only to exist and be left alone. The character of Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is the conflicted, schooled voice of intellectual conscience, embodying elements of both priest and partisan, ready to assume his measure of guilt for twenty years of his nation’s destructive apathy. His gentleness, inner conflict and existential hopelessness is a far different amalgamation from the black-and-white, good vs. evil stereotypes so prevalent in earlier war films, like Rossellini’s Rome Open City; to some degree, this shift reflects a greater willingness for Italians to question their own complicity ten years after the fact.
Since the script sticks closely to the novel’s narrative, it can be argued that La ciociara owes more to the combination of Sophia Loren and Alberto Moravia than to director Vittorio de Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. While the latter can be felt as the driving creative force behind their early collaborations Umberto D. and Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), the strengths of La ciociara really lie elsewhere, which is probably why it is the most overlooked film of de Sica’s career. When Anna Magnani turned down the role due to other obligations, it was she that suggested Sophia Loren to de Sica. The director took a lot of heat for her casting, both because of her young age and her attractiveness, which critics saw as a softening of the novel’s hard edge. But after seeing her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else commanding the role of Cesira with such power and strength. At the 1960 Academy Awards, Loren achieved the unimaginable feat of taking Best Actress for her performance, the first ever given to a non-English language role and a huge coup for the Italian film industry (the fully-fluent Loren did her own English dubbing for the film, which no doubt carried much weight in this decision.)
La ciociara was Loren’s big break and sparked a creative resurgence in de Sica as well, as he entered the last decade of his career. Over the next four years, he would complete two more outstanding films with Loren–Oggi, ieri, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) and Matrimonio all’italiana (Marriage Italian-Style)–making her an international sensation on par with Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she often starred.