It’s movies like Adua and Her Friends from director Antonio Pietrangeli that remind me of the elemental joys of watching movies you’ve never heard of before. It’s a humbling experience to acknowledge how much of cinema there still is to explore and how names like his sometimes arbitrarily get past over.
Because the only reason I ever made my way to the picture was on the merits of the cast alone and taking stock of the names, it is quite the epic ensemble. Simone Signoret anchors with her typically self-assured beauty. Sandra Milo is frisky and if not for her brunette locks, certainly a dumb blonde archetype. Then, Emanuelle Riva, stretching her own range, is angsty and cross with the world that women such as they are subjected to. The three actors are a trio of standouts along with one very special guest to be mentioned later.
Our opening image is a telling one with peppy jazz playing against the brick buildings and cobblestone streets. These exterior shots give us some sense of the adjacent world: the caverns of a local brothel. We learn they have been shut down by the Merlin Law (1958) and must find some new way to subsist.
With no real prospects, four of the women set out to make their own future. They buy up a run-down property partially secluded from town, to turn it into a restaurant, strictly on the level. This is no Risky Business. I could see them remaking this film generations later only for it to lose all of its flavor and charm in translation.
Because they hit every single roadblock imaginable along the way. The nightmares of going into business with starkly different personalities chafing against one another. Managing to get off the ground with the exorbitant amount of startup costs thanks to a deal with the devil. Having your soft open for a handful of customers only to run out of ingredients and any amount of things to feed them. You name it and they have the issue.
But the impediments don’t feel obvious nor the humor madcap and over the top. It finds a happy medium in a perceptive often nuanced equilibrium fluctuating between hardship and laughter. The jazz and sunny countryside neutralize any hint of a dramatic outbreak and though the picture is a tad long, it does allow a certain width and breath to cycle through all sorts of scenes.
Thus, the buildup of the restaurant from a fledgling even flimsy enterprise into a bustling, highly lucrative undertaking, is all the more believable. We see it happening and get to relish the process. This is the movie at its most delightful. It’s not as purely comedic, but even for the briefest of moments, you cannot help but recall Playtime’s own bungled restaurant opening. The difference for these women is their very livelihoods are more obviously at stake.
It plays best as scenarios and momentary interactions. The Father from the local convent drops in, trading conversation and well wishes for the secondhand scraps to serve as slop for his pig. The first customers start trickling in, enticed by the “restaurant” sign over the arch, which leads to an all but empty pavilion lined with tables.
Each woman has a man in their life, whether physically present or generally absent. Milly hooks the nicest beau of the bunch, smitten with both her and her cooking. Marilina courts the most demons and tries to steady her tumultuous personal life by bringing her young son to live with them. His upbringing causes some squabbles, which ultimately culminate in his baptism.
It’s a poignant moment reflecting the women entering a realm of religious piety. It’s not so much that they have been radically changed, but the way they are perceived and how they make their living gives them a new lease on life. The goodness and inherent decency in them are given a chance to shine through. One is quickly reminded they are not defined by the men who drift in and out around them. The cornerstone of the entire film is their female camaraderie — the affection they hold onto — even when they bicker amongst themselves.
All the villains in the picture are of the opposite sex, and it makes sense given the cultural framework and their past profession. They’ve been relegated to a specific caste of society and in their efforts to break free, they meet the hegemonic forces that be. The most blatantly obvious antagonist is the peremptory Doctor Ercoli (Claudio Gora), who bankrolls them and requests 1 million lire a month for his recompense. When he actually inspects their premises, it reflects just how pitiless he is and how powerless they remain. It still feels like they are owned.
The rest of the louts are more like abject scoundrels and losers. Lolita’s purported beau has all but run off with their money and when he does show his ugly face again, he has the gall to try and pump her for more, spinning tall tales of going on the road again where he’s a big name.
Their love is not lasting nor their promises secure. Of course, Marcello is charismatic as a car salesman; he always seems to be in all his pictures. There is something pathetically despondent about him at times, but it only serves to mask his swings in infidelity.
Signoret’s moment of ultimate realization is a bitter turning point. She recognizes who he really is and leaves him to his own devices. In the moment, she’s deeply hurt and yet she has an unassailable resiliency to take every beating with poise. Not that she’s unemotional, but she will not be totally trampled by the world around her even as she is wounded.
They reach their lowest point, completely destitute and scandalized, despite everything they did striving to make an honest living for themselves. Instead, they get their pictures plastered all across the pages of the red hot Il Tempo.
Their final act of rebelling is a cathartic one as they go out on their own terms. However, there’s more. Even at its most abysmally low, Signoret soaked head to toe in the rain, jeered by the ladies on the streets, she still maintains her composure.
She’s fallen far but like another French icon, Jeanne Moreau, she captures the screen and even if she’s been toppled, there’s no way to totally crush her. If nothing else, she commands our undivided attention and makes Adua and her Friends worthy of its title. They are a force to be reckoned with no matter what the tabloids might read.