The Second World War is at its height, and in Rome the citizens suffer the bombardment of the Allied planes regularly. One of those citizens is Cesira (Sophia Loren), who owns a grocer's shop there, and is now sick of the produce literally flying off the shelves and the homes of her neighbours being destroyed every time there is an explosion. Besides, she or her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) could very well be killed, so when a strike happens again, it's the final straw and she makes up her mind to go south, away from the fighting in Rome to what she hopes will be peace and quiet, relative to what she has endured in the capital at least. She leaves the care of the shop in the hands of her friend (Raf Vallone) and takes Rosetta away…
Two Women, or La ciociara as it was known in its native Italy, was notable as the first acting Oscar given to a non-Hollywood performance from foreign language climes as Loren secured the Best Actress gong. That was likely down to the depiction of a controversial scene, or a scene taking on controversial subject matter anyway, which took place late on in the drama, something the Italian audience would have been well aware of even before they saw the film thanks to the title referring explicitly to the victims of a war atrocity that while it has never gone away, is not often discussed when death is on the agenda. If you were not forewarned that this scene was approaching, or if you had no idea about the events it references, then it would be all the more powerful.
Which was presumably why Loren was so lauded for her bravery in taking the role, though to be fair hers was the best performance in the film by far as director Vittorio De Sica offered her abundant opportunities to shine dramatically. He was of the Italian neo-realist school, having made his greatest impact with The Bicycle Thief back in the nineteen-forties which was instrumental in making foreign language films must-sees for those interested in expanding their cinematic horizons in English-speaking nations, and farther afield as well for that matter. He had continued in that vein with a selection of earnest accounts of emotional hardship that had picked up countless followers across the globe.
Not just for De Sica, either, though he was one of the highest profile directors from out of Europe thanks to his aims for the heartstrings hitting the mark time and again with international audiences, and Two Women was as big a success as his first major hit had been. All that said, and the important subject matter taken into account the film was better at illustrating the sheer randomness of harrowing experiences in war than it was delivering an actual storyline, as the script assembled a series of incidents from Cesira's life when she travelled south with only Loren to hold them together - she did not receive much solid support from her fellow cast members, who tended to be specific types (stereotypes, you could say) rather than living, breathing personalities in their own right, the actors even tending towards caricature.
Then again, if Two Women was not subtle, who said it needed to be considering what happened to Cesira and Rosetta nearer the end of the film? There was nothing subtle about war crimes, and that's what they were caught up in. All through this there appears to be little rhyme or reason to what the mother and daughter experience other than chalking it up to the trials and tribulations of living in a war zone, which can easily put the viewer on edge, but then again what De Sica did choose to depict leaned heavily on melodrama rather than the realism he made his name with. Jean-Paul Belmondo was the imported star who played the intellectual Biblical scholar Michele, his thoughtful demeanour contrasting with the violence that threatens the populace at every turn, be that attacks from above or from roaming rogue soldiers, but oddly he didn't make much of an impression as every cast member was bulldozed out of the way by Loren's sheer force of will. For a tour de force in acting, this was worth catching, but what conclusions it drew from war crimes were more oblique and hyper-emotional. Music by Armando Trovajoli.
[Cultfilm's DVD has a restored print and a couple of featurettes on Loren and De Sica as extras.]