Adua and Her Friends

| July 11, 2011

In May, RaroVideo premiered Antonio Pietrangeli’s Adua and Her Friends on DVD, starring then world famous Oscar-winning actress Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959). Following the Merlin law of 1959 in Italy that put bordellos out of business and left women unemployed, Adua (Signoret), leads a pack of former prostitutes trying to make good by opening up a trattoria in the country. Featuring two French and two Italian actresses including sexy Signoret, Sandra Milo (wife of Adua producer Moris Egras), Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959), and Gina Rovere. Adua and Her Friends makes a bold feminist statement that exposes sexual hypocrisy in Italian men and government.
The opening of the film finds a brothel full of women lamenting their last night in business and discussion of what they’ll do now that their livelihood is gone. A few are more optimistic than others, but the family they had isn’t bound to die just because they aren’t allowed to operate as prostitutes. These bantering Italian women try to conceal the obvious fact that they’re sex workers making a go at operating a trattoria without getting caught for their real business upstairs selling sex after Italy outlaws bordellos. A procession of men carrying a coffin leave wreaths outside the brothel doors, foreshadowing an inevitably tragic end to this unforgettable female cast.
After Adua is denied a business license for being a prostitute, she seeks out a shady business man, Erocli, who tells her she needs to get her head checked – that she could never do this on her own. He asks for one million lire a month for him to take care of the deed to the land, rent, protection and the license.
The foursome is so busy running the restaurant and living relatively conventional lives, going back to their old ways seems impossible. Adua falls for a desperate lonely bachelor, Piero (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita, La Notte, 8 1/2, Divorce, Italian Style), who is desperate to go to bed with her, but he’s a cheating playboy. She mistakenly makes herself vulnerable and available, and feels shy around the bachelor. Adua adjusts her outfit and spits out her gum at the race track, realizing that without a companion, she looks more like a brothel madam.
Like Adua, Lolita gets tempted to leave the pack by handsome yet hustling musicians and performers. Caterina’s favorite customer, Emilio, eats liver frittatas just to please her. Marilina embraces parenthood by bringing her son to the country to stay at the trattoria and then baptizing him. There is a priceless moment when the boy won’t take communion, so Marilina tells him its sugar.
Italian film historian Maurizio Poro introduces the film in the DVD’s bonus features where he discusses Pietrangeli’s love of actresses and keenness in capturing the many conflicting emotions which the women express the best on film: heartbreak, sexual intrigue, seduction, fragility, fear, temptation, infatuation, neurosis. Poro also mentions the directors stint as second unit director for Luchino Visconti’s Osession, an Italian Postman Always Rings Twice. Earlier Italian films about the life of female prostitutes were Behind Close Shutters (1951), Nights of Cabiria (1957), and The World Condemns Them (in which Pietrangeli was crew).
Pietrangeli tragically drowned while filming his last movie in 1969, but his musicality, melancholy, and supreme screen direction are worth returning to for the pure joy of intimate angles, sharp dialogue, and a one-of-a-kind ensemble of characters.

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