“How did I wind up with you people? One walks out, another obstinate as a mule, and you’re scared of the dark.”
In February 1958, the Italian Parliament enacted Law No. 75/1958, officially known as the “Law on the Abolition of the Regulation of Prostitution and the Fight Against the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others,” but more popularly known as “the Merlin law,” in honor of its original sponsor and primary champion, Angelina Merlin; incidentally, the first woman to be elected to the Italian senate. While the law — which is still on the books — hardly brought an end to the profession, it did succeed in closing over 700 brothels around the country.
This film opens at closing time on the last day of operation for Rome’s houses of ill repute. After the last customers are hustled out, and all the tabs are settled, the girls set about packing up and moving on. Some chatter nervously about their uncertain futures, while others eagerly anticipate the future of their plans.
Adua and Her Friends have decided to get their thing together, in the country. They’ve rented a big farmhouse, with the notion of transforming it into a restaurant. Their living quarters will be above, with the idea being that further business can be conducted there. Dinner on the main floor, dessert upstairs, capisce?
Let’s meet the girls: Adua (Simone Signoret, Army Of Shadows), nearing fifty, is the brains of the outfit, doubling as unofficial leader and mother hen; Beautiful Marilinia’s (Emmanuelle Riva, Leon Morin, Priest) mood swings like a pendulum do, and may foreshadow a descent into madness; Lolita (Sandra Milo, 8 1/2) is giggly and child-like — a born follower; and Milly (Gina Rovere, Big Deal On Madonna Street), who goes by the name of Caterina when working by night, is pleasingly plump, and generally keeps to herself.
Things get off to a rough start. The property needs quite a bit of clean up and repair (not to mention the installation of indoor bathrooms), and more troublesome, the girls have been denied a business license, owing to their criminal past. Adua seeks the counsel of one Dr. Ercoli (Claudio Gora, Il Sorpasso), who tells her not to worry — he’ll get the license in his name, and buy the house, thus eliminating the problem of dealing with a suspicious landlord. He does, however, impose two conditions: the women must get the restaurant up and running for two months before opening for business upstairs, and rent has been increased to one million lire monthly. An exorbitant amount? Perhaps, but Ercoli is now offering them the protection of his good name, and besides, with two thriving businesses running simultaneously, the money will come rolling in, no?
Mo’ men, mo’ problems. Adua finds herself falling for Piero Salvagni (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita), a beguiling used auto salesman (“Watch him,” Marilina warns.”He could sell a car to the boss of Fiat.”); Lolita is being seduced by Stefano (Gianrico Tedeschi, The Law) a traveling show promoter, who promises stardom, untold riches, and the adventure of the open road; Milly attracts a local architect (Antonio Rais), who comes to view her as perfect wife material. If he only knew.
Meanwhile, their minutes tick slowly by. The work is hard, and the women are generally unsuited for it — none of them have any previous restaurant experience. When will the two months be up, so they can start making real money, doing what they know best?
Raro Video’s Adua and Her Friends (Blu-ray) benefits from a splendid black and white 1.66:1/1080p HD transfer, and the LPCM 2.0 mono audio does a great job mixing Piero Piccioni’s lively jazz score with the original Italian dialog. I had some (slight) trouble with the English subtitles: they’re white, and occasionally wash out against the background, producing a form of “snow blindness.” They’re also a bit smallish, which probably can’t be helped, as this is a dialog-heavy story. I found myself rewinding quite a bit, in order not to miss conversational points. That said, the subtitles are extremely well-written, and given the quality of the material, I found the extra effort on my part to be well worth it.
Raro has ported over two extras from its previous DVD presentation: an introduction from Italian critic and film historian Maurizio Porro, and “Girandola 1910,” the Pietrangeli-directed segment from 1954 Italian omnibus film, “Amori di mezzo secolo.” There’s also a nifty little book featuring photographs, critical analyses, a filmography, and short biography on the little-known director.
As the film’s own running time began to pile up, I found myself wondering at what seemed to be a wayward, almost ramshackle narrative approach. Not that what I’d been watching wasn’t interesting. On the contrary, Adua and Her Friends establishes a stable of rich, complex characterizations, played to a tee by a top-notch cast (Signoret had just established herself as the first foreigner to nab the Best Actress Oscar, for Room At The Top, a year earlier; In 2013 — at age eighty-five — Riva would go on to become the oldest Best Actress nominee in Oscar history, for her stunning performance in Amour). But, like the main characters themselves, I was asking: when would those two months be up, and the second floor be open for business?
The problem was that I was unconsciously applying modern Hollywood film standards (wherein the stated intentions of film protagonists amounts to a virtual plot blueprint) to this fifty-five year old foreign gem. What’s more, Adua and Her Friends was only my second Pietrangeli film. My first was The Visitor, a first-rate work of stunning beauty and originality. Though Adua employs a somewhat more conventional narrative approach, it too qualifies as a true cinematic masterpiece.