Adua and Her Friends
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler 

Produced by Moris Ergas for Zebra Film; directed by Antonio Pietrangeli; written by Pietrangeli, Ruggero Maccari, Tullio Pinelli, and Ettore Scola; cinematography by Armando Nannuzzi; edited by Eraldo da Roma; art direction by Luigi Scaccianoce; costumes by Danilo Donati; music by Piero Piccioni; starring Simone Signoret, Sandra Milo, Emmanuelle Riva, Gina Rovere, Marcello Mastroianni, and Claudio Gora. Blu-ray, B&W, 129 min., Italian dialogue with optional English subtitles, 1960. A RaroVideo release, distributed by Kino Lorber.

Antonio Pietrangeli’s greatness today goes largely unheralded. The Italian filmmaker—who died in a car crash in 1968 after directing eleven features and two shorts—specialized in sensitive group studies, with tender attention paid to each of a unit’s wounded members. His films show attention-starved people measuring how best to behave themselves in public settings and are filled with shots highlighting pensive faces among a sea of bodies in movement. Pietrangeli’s champions sometimes call him a feminist filmmaker, both for the strength of his female protagonists and for the warmth of the actresses playing them. He focused at least as much on class, however, as on gender. His films explore the ways in which, by codifying and stratifying people, class divisions also isolate them.

This theme is detailed movingly in Pietrangeli’s star-studded fifth feature, Adua and Her Friends (1960), the recipient of a new Region 1 Blu-ray release from RaroVideo. The film shows a group of four prostitutes, led by Simone Signoret’s titular matriarch, banding together to run a countryside restaurant called Adua’s following the close of their Roman brothel. It is Pietrangeli’s first film to be released on Blu-ray in North America and his only film currently available on Region 1 home-video format other than fellow RaroVideo release The Visitor (1963). 

Simone Signoret as Adua and Sandra Milo as Lolita in Adua and Her Friends (1960)

The black-and-white film’s hard, clear HD transfer has been made from a restored 35mm print. It comes accompanied by supplements that give helpful context both for the film and for Pietrangeli’s oeuvre. They include several short informative booklet texts (albeit imperfectly translated from Italian), a fluid eight-minute video introduction by Italian film critic Maurizio Porro, and Pietrangeli’s contribution to the omnibus feature Amori di mezzo secolo (1953, aka Mid-Century Loves), a comic short film called Girandola 1910 in which a love triangle’s collapse is shown with screwball precision. In it, a doctor prescribes a cure for “exhaustion” (read heartache) that makes both him and his patients sick.

The short (despite a suboptimal transfer here) usefully showcases the delicate tonal balance achieved in Pietrangeli’s career-long tragicomic style of storytelling. As the critic Dave Kehr perceptively suggested in his 2011 New York Times review of RaroVideo’s prior DVD release of Adua and Her Friends, Pietrangeli’s art functioned best when perched between two well-known modes of Italian filmmaking, both of which consistently dealt with working-class life. Prior to establishing himself as a full-time director, he helped write the screenplays for key neorealist dramas including Ossessione (1943) and Journey to Italy (1954). His own directorial efforts often drew on a recognizably Italian neorealist sense of compassionate outrage over troubles that impoverished people endured while also dipping into the burgeoning film genre known as commedia all’italiana, in which success is often viewed as perseverance past failure. Pietrangeli’s genre-bridging films stingingly analyzed contemporary Italy’s social conditions by showing the hypocrisy inherent in the country’s lawmaking and its citizens who suffered as a result.

Adua and Her Friends opens with its four main characters wandering their brothel’s halls during its last night and sardonically yet sadly recalling previous customers. At one point, Adua pauses in front of a mirror, as though considering her age. The film was made shortly after the 1958 passing of Italy’s Merlin Law, aimed towards limiting the spread of prostitution. The law (a version of which is still in place) forbade pimping and the operation of brothels while allowing women to autonomously sell their bodies on streets and inside their homes. In doing so, it offered a hollow version of freedom, one that ostensibly liberated prostitutes by turning them from full-time business employees into permanent freelancers. 

From left to right: Emmanuelle Riva, Gina Rovere, Simone Signoret, and Sandra Milo as the four central women in Adua and Her Friends

The solidarity forged by Adua’s four women—both emotional and economic, with 500,000 lire invested in the trattoria by each of them—represents a blow against such disempowerment. It comes, though, with the risk of continued servitude. To their surprise, the women’s application for a permit is rejected because of their backgrounds, requiring them to find a front that will obtain one on their behalf. The prosperous doctor and former brothel visitor Ercoli (played by Claudio Gora) volunteers his services while making demands. For the first two months of business, he tells them, they will run a strictly food-and-drinks establishment; afterwards, they are to continue serving meals on the building’s ground level while welcoming men upstairs, and share the profits with him through a rent of one million lire a month.

The quartet busily sets about learning to cook, with predictable and enjoyable mishaps. (Plates of spaghetti tragically fail to reach customers; an old man, upon learning that the kitchen’s store lacks both mozzarella and salad, settles upon eating his steak with an apple.) Its members must additionally fend off the lecherous former brothel clients who come to visit for meals with their wives and children in tow and cover for one another, both downstairs and upstairs, whenever a personal conflict arises.

Lolita (frequent Pietrangeli collaborator Sandra Milo), the most voluptuous of the entrepreneurs, professes loyalty to the group and particularly to Adua while offering more free meals to male visitors than the women might be able to afford. The rounder, shyer Milly (Gina Rovere, fresh from Mario Monicelli’s commedia all’italiana success Big Deal on Madonna Street) cooks liver frittatas for gentle, well-dressed Stefano (Gianrico Tedeschi) and fears what will happen to their mutual affection if he learns her history. Mentally fragile Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva, one year removed from Hiroshima, mon amour) dreads recalling her past so much that she brings her young son from his foster home to live with her in the restaurant, with the hope that he will calm her mind enough to help her face the present and future.

The film gives each of its lead actresses revealing close-ups, often in unusual fashion. Though Pietrangeli’s films sometimes use the kinds of cut-ins typical for registering characters’ thoughts and reactions, the filmmaker also often achieves full looks at his leads’ faces by directing them to walk towards and away from the camera within wider shots, as though they were playing emotional hide-and-seek. This choice yields particular pathos in the case of Signoret, a beautifully guarded, then nearly forty-year-old actress who starred in Adua and Her Friends soon after winning an Oscar for her role as a doomed woman having an adulterous affair with a ruthless young businessman in the British social drama Room at the Top (1959).

Marcello Mastroianni as Piero, Sandra Milo as Lolita, and Simone Signoret as Adua in Adua and Her Friends

Adua faces her own drama beyond the restaurant in encounters with the used car salesman Piero (a flamboyant Marcello Mastroianni in the same year as La Dolce Vita), an impish two-timer who nonetheless inspires her to let down her guard and give herself freely to his attentions. Throughout the film, Signoret suggests Adua’s motives for doing so with hooded eyes, a small, thin smile, and occasional understated shrugs. One powerful potential reason is summed up in a simple moment: An aging streetwalker passes Adua one night while she stands outside Piero’s apartment, and she tells herself firmly, “I won’t be like that.”

In Pietrangeli’s films, the most reliable support networks that people have often lie within themselves. The main characters of his overt comedies (three of which starred the wondrously doe-eyed Alberto Sordi) feed themselves through dreaming. In his darker dramas (such as 1965’s outstanding I Knew Her Well), even measures as stark as suicide register as proof of strength of character, particularly when the surrounding world seems to offer no better choice.

Adua and Her Friends, a mixture, shows its central women leaning upon each other for help before eventually splitting apart. As the author Bruno Di Marino notes in an essay accompanying the new RaroVideo release, nearly every adult male in the film proves to be unreliable for them. (The lone exception is an asexual neighboring monk who periodically checks on the womens’ souls and occasionally helps out in the kitchen.) The heroines’ greatest pleasures do not come from romantic relationships, but rather from the contentment of doing their work well under stable conditions, and always with the choice to refuse it.

This is perhaps why Adua ultimately opts to defy Ercoli, who comes to collect more money than they have. She loudly exposes him in front of her dining patrons as a pimp, after which he calls the police, who keep the peace by arresting the women while leaving him free. The four eventually fight back by returning to the building after they are released and laughing as they joyously break nearly everything in it. “One evening we had eighty people eating,” Adua comments ruefully at the end of a night full of broken chairs and china. “It was hard work, but it was very satisfying.”

Adua and Her Friends thus follows a trajectory—from the closing of one business to the shuttering of another. This repetition is stressed through difference, with the group’s last night in the restaurant abruptly followed by a final scene of Adua appearing unlike she has beforealone at night on a rain-soaked street back in Rome. While younger women around her procure male clients, she insists in a fractured voice that she won’t end up like them. She has been left to fend for herself as the law would have it, and her friends are suddenly nowhere in sight. 

Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer.

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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3