Winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and starring to international, honest to goodness movie icons, Antonio Pietrangelli's ADUA E LE COMPAGNE (ADUA AND HER FRIENDS) is a slice of Italian neo-realist goodness.
The film starts when as the 1959 Merlin Law has shut down Italy's legal brothels, forcing many prostitutes to figure out how to change careers. If made now, this would probably be about four internet marketers forced into prostitution by the dot-com bust or economic collapse. (Evidently, this law is still in effect banning organized prostitution. The more you know, eh?) As the film opens, the girls are having the same conversation set to “Hard Candy Christmas” in THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. They've just finished their last night and tomorrow start new lives. Ringleader Adua (Simone Signoret, fresh from winning an Oscar) brings some old associates together to turn a run-down old country building into a restaurant. While catty to one another, they get down to the dirty work or rehabbing their new home and business. For all the flaring tempers they should probably name the place “Over Our Heads.”
When obstacles prevent opening their restaurant, they turn to Dr. Ercoli, a local “fixer” who'll make the license happen, but only for a price. His caveat, of course, is they return to their old line of work upstairs, while the restaurant runs downstairs. I've no idea what a million Lira amounted to in 1960, but they'll owe him that every month. Judging by Adua's expression, she's a bit daunted. They carry on, but know the past will eventually come knocking.With a restaurant that's slowly becoming successful, and the attentions of car salesman Piero (Marcello Mastroianni), Adua and the girls adjust to their new lives. One starts a new romance, another reconnects with her young son (even though she's a terrible parent). Each of their journeys are surprisingly affecting,and the film skirts sentimentality without ever falling into that trap. Their story ends in a realistic place, though not necessarily a happy one, as their bill finally comes due.
I'm ashamed to say the only other Italian film from this period I'd seen was “8 1/2,” but I was absolutely absorbed by ADUA E LE COMPAGNE. Each actress is good, but Signoret is mesmerizing even when badly dubbed. The film doesn't sensationalize or pander by focusing on the sexual possibilities of the story. Instead, the focus is on the characters and the choices they have to make in changing times. The circumstances may be different, but forced and unexpected career change is something many can relate to these days.