Adua and Her Friends (Raro Video/Kino Lorber, NR)

dvd aduaThe dark turn also delivers a strong critique of several of the less pleasant aspects of Italian society.



You can tell a lot about a country by how it treats sexual matters. Here in the United States, we manage an attitude blending prudishness, censoriousness, and prurience, so that skimpy, sexy outfits are considered appropriate for preteen girls but a brief, accidental flash of Janet Jackson’s nipple puts us into a tizzy. Even that old prude Walt Disney, who was upset when Annette Funicello’s bellybutton was revealed in Beach Party, apparently had no problem with close-ups of her gyrating, bikini-clad crotch.

A different set of rules governs Adua and Her Friends, a 1960 Italian film directed by Antonio Pietrangeli. Adua (Simone Signoret) and her friends are prostitutes—but don’t come to this film expecting lots of sex scenes and body parts on display. The focus is not on titillation, but on working—as in sex worker, or working girl—and on prostitution as simply a means of making a living. I’m not criticizing; in fact, it’s refreshing to see the sex trade treated as a business, complete with a till that wouldn’t be out of place in any shop or restaurant.

Adua and Her Friends opens in 1958, on the last night before the Merlin Law takes effect, banning the operation of bordellos (although prostitution itself was not made illegal). As a band of young men parade through the streets bearing a large coffin and funeral wreath, the ladies of one particular bordello settle their accounts, pack their things, and discuss their plans for the future.

While some have conventional jobs (e.g., working in a dairy store) to look forward to, Adua decides to keep doing what she does best. She and Milly (Gina Rovere), Lolita (Sandra Milo), and Marlina (Emmanuelle Riva) set out to open a country restaurant with other services available to those in the know. They have to be careful not to attract the attention of the law, and so begin by simply offering meals. This produces some comic moments (besides predictable personality conflicts, they forget to buy vegetables for the salad and haven’t a clue how much to charge for a meal), but as the ladies settle down to the task of running a restaurant, they find that they not only enjoy their new line of work but are also good at it. Who knew there was so much money in being respectable?

If the film ended there, it would be a heartwarming comedy about how some ladies of the evening found fulfillment and prosperity in a more societally approved line of work (prostitutes may have been an accepted fact of life in Italy at the time, but that didn’t mean they weren’t looked down on). Pietrangeli has something darker and more realistic in mind, though, and that’s when the actors really get to show off their chops. The dark turn also delivers a strong critique of several of the less pleasant aspects of Italian society.

Signoret is the dominant personality of the film, just as she was in Diabolique. The other characters are more like types, each with their special problem to work out, but the actors produce convincing and memorable portrayals. A charming Marcello Mastroianni and sinister Claudio Gora do equally well in supporting roles. Adua and Her Friends may not be quite in the class of masterpieces like La Dolce Vita or Rome, Open City, but it’s a fine film, particularly discerning in examining the thoughts and emotions of its predominantly female cast. Piatrangeli was noted as a director of women (sort of an Italian George Cukor, if you can trust Maurizio Porro, who provides a video introduction) and his skills are on full display here.

Adua and Her Friends was shot in black and white by Armando Nannuzzi and has the distinctive yet unfussy look of the best neorealist films, while the location shooting gives it an almost documentary feel. It looks great on the Blu-ray, and the sound is fine, although I’m not a big fan of the jazzy soundtracks by Piero Piccioni, which sounds really dated today. Extras include a 12-page illustrated booklet, a subtitled video introduction by Porro, and the short film “Girandola 1910” by Pietrangeli. | Sarah Boslaugh

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