Performance of the week: Sophia Loren in Two Women (1961)






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Sophia Loren received her first Oscar nomination and won her only Oscar to date for playing Cesira in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. As such, she made history by being the first performer to win the Oscar for a foreign language performance. I mentioned in my post on fellow nominee Geraldine Page’s performance that her win is considered a surprise because of the foreign language factor, but now I kinda doubt it (Yes, I’m watching the 1961 best actress nominees). Although she wasn’t even nominated for the Golden Globe, she actually swept a majority of the other awards. What I guess is that Natalie Wood must have offered some real competition as she was a former child star showing unexpected dramatic range in Splendor In The Grass, and she was also in the best picture winner that year (West Side Story bleh). And then we also have Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which is also considered an iconic performance nowadays. I wouldn’t be surprised if voters were actually willing to give Hepburn her second Oscar, although I’m not sure how well-received the movie was back then. I don’t know, not an expert in analysing all these Oscar politics, but 1961 and 1962 are both years that interest me greatly because I find all the performances in these years damn good, even for actors.

Two Women is such a weird translation for the film’s original title La Ciocara, which supposedly means The Woman From Ciocara. It’s a really good film that I think would have deserved a foreign language film nomination, although I don’t think it’s without its flaws. The pacing is a bit rushed in the beginning and the tonal shifts of the film can be a bit abrupt, like how Cesira and Rosetta are joyfully having a meal with the villagers not long after nearly getting shot to death, but I eventually got used to it and I even liked it. Its simplicity brought out the message about the horrors of war very clearly without needing to resort to overly dragged out melodrama. The film has this simplicity and honesty to it that is very distinctly European and easy to watch. I love the very down-to-earth feel of the village, and the tiny touches like the sounds of crickets in the background that enhances this atmosphere and mood.

Unsurprisingly, the role of Cesira was originally meant for Anna Magnani to play. Age-wise, I think it would have been a perfect fit as Loren was only 25, and there’s also no denying that Magnani was one fantastic actress. However, as I watched the film, I found myself so captivated by Loren’s work here that I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role. Magnani’s emotionally explosive acting style would have been brilliant (boy, those last scenes would have been amazing), and yet I feel like the Sophia’s slightly more delicate touch to this role made it even more outstanding and memorable. She’s not an actress I am familiar with at all, unless you count watching her largely ignorable work in Nine (not her fault) as something. Still, I’m now highly interested in rediscovering some of her old movies, and I daresay that the respect for her talent is largely justified.

 Honestly speaking, I don’t find Cesira that complicated a character: she’s a beautiful, sensuous woman with a cut-the-bullshit, straightforward personality. She is fiercely protective of her daughter, and yet at the same time she is yearning for something more when it comes to her love life. However, to say that the role is easy to play would be grossly inaccurate in my opinion. It’s a character that can be played very annoyingly, given her no-nonsense way of speaking, yet Loren instead made this woman a very charming and likeable person, so much so that even her one-liner rebuttals are quite funny, like when she asked if the cheese was made of gold. The dialogue about Mussolini’s sex life is very funny as well. I feel that Loren knew exactly how to play the humorous scenes, and she nailed them without making them feel forced or obnoxious. Of course, there’s the argument that such charm is not necessarily an indication of great acting but in this case I disagree; yes, Cesira can be described as a typical Italian woman, but it takes a very talented performer to nail the traits of such a woman very naturally. Not even the most technically proficient “method actors” can recreate such charm; it has to come from a performer who identifies herself with the role. I mean, can you imagine Marvellous Meryl Streep playing this part? Sure, she would have given her 200% in learning the language and the way of moving but it wouldn’t have come as naturally and realistically. Heck, even nowadays I feel like Penelope Cruz is trying to recreate such charm (Volver), but over here it is in its most original form. In short, this role was Loren’s to play. As you all know, I have always loved these performances of “ordinary” people (Fonda in Coming Home, Lange in Tootsie…). They aren’t necessarily the flashiest, and yet they always evoke emotions within me that remind me of what it is like to be human.

Although I’m a guy and have a completely opposite personality from this woman, I found myself identifying with a lot of her emotions thanks to Loren’s portrayal of her. Her interactions with the various characters are fantastically handled as they show the various sides of Cesira. Her warmth and fierce protection of her daughter is superbly portrayed, never becoming overly-sentimental and yet moving because of the strong bond between both actresses. I also loved the way she handled her interactions with the men; her brief “affair” with Giovanni in the beginning is more of a case of seeking for companionship, even though he’s an already married man. But her relationship with Michele, the young graduate from the village, is much more complicated than that. He’s much younger than her and you can sense the attraction between them, yet at the same time she’s aware of this huge age gap between them and the inappropriate nature of their relationship.  Not to mention her daughter’s affection for him which certainly complicates things, although I felt this part was a bit confusingly played by Eleanor Brown, the actress playing the daughter (she wasn’t very good to be honest). Wikipedia described the attraction as a “fatherly” bond but the way it was portrayed seemed to suggest it was more than that. It was something that I wasn’t clear about, but I guess part of it is because I was so focused on Loren’s performance. Of course, all this sounds a bit twisted but it never felt so in the movie, because of Loren’s natural acting instincts.

The highlights of the performance would be the disturbing gang rape scene in the church. Loren finally got to display another side of Cesira: the broken-down, devastated side. Watching your own child get raped in front of you is a downright horrible thing to happen to anyone, and Loren’s shows the pain of the character so brilliantly. It really once again brought out the fierce protection and love she has for her daughter, albeit in a different manner. The famous breakdown scene where she screams at the soldiers is easily the best acted scene among the 1961 actresses. Although you see how calculated her acting is (brilliantly timed tears, lol), it never feels that way and it is clear from here that she has completely identified herself with this role. Watching her worriedly waiting for her daughter to come home when she sneaked out at night just spoke volumes about the character to me: at the end of the day, she’s still a good, strong and independent woman with principles. If you think about it, she managed to go through this entire trauma with her daughter without depending on any men, and I think this fighting spirit was brilliantly captured by Loren. Like I said, Cesira isn’t the most complicated woman and yet Loren shows all these sides of her, making her portrayal a realistically layered one.

In short, this is a performance of pure brilliance. Loren displayed a whole range of emotions with this character and created a performance that is just outstanding despite its simplicity. A very well-deserved Oscar win that has become one of my personal favourites.


One comment

  1. I just saw this film and Loren really blew me away. She embodied the part of caring and strong mother exquisitely and it felt so authentic and unaffected. Truly a very powerful performance. When she’s in the truck and she looks out the window and finally cries after all she’s been through, it broke my heart.

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