Judge Josh Rode and his friends only go to restaurants that have a large golden M in front.
"If they want to eat, we're here to serve them." ~ Marilina
In the late 1950s Italy enacted the Merlin Law, which made brothels (though not prostitution) illegal. Antonio Peitangeli's (I Knew Her Well) 1960 classic follows the story of four women's attempt to open a restaurant that will provide a few extra off-the-menu items.
Facts of the Case
Adua Giovannetti (Simone Signoret, Diabolique) is an aging prostitute who doesn't want to end up a decrepit street walker. But when Italy makes brothels illegal, the street seems the only legal option. Undeterred, she and three other ex-bordello-ettes pool their savings and start a restaurant (ostensibly) thanks in large part to a former client who is just as interested as they are in creating a place to resume their real work.
First of all, if you read the description for Adua and her Friends and got excited because it features four hookers, this isn't the film you are looking for. Seriously, there are no sexual situations to speak of, and not even a hint of nudity. Go look up The Triple B Collection instead. If, on the other hand, you want a profoundly insightful and moving testimonial to what a dream and hard work can (and can't) get you, there are many worse places to go than Trattoria Adua.
Adua, Milly (Gina Rovere, Life is Beautiful), Lolita (Sandra Milo, Juliet of the Spirits), and Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva, Hiroshima Mon Amour) create their restaurant with the plan to make an illicit brothel of the upstairs rooms. They have the financial and political support of Ercoli (Claudio Gora, The Easy Life) but must stay discreet for two months before their real work can begin.
When customers start showing up, however, they find themselves unprepared to run the restaurant part of the business. The first "meal" they serve consists of beer. Their salad's sole ingredient is lettuce. When someone asks for a bill, poor Milly tells him to pay next time because she has no idea what she's supposed to charge for a meal she prepared on the fly. All the while they squabble and fight and fret for the day when they can resume the job that is, as Marilina puts it, "Less tiring. And I like it more."
But then, in the midst of their complaints and impatience, everything slowly changes. Lolita finds that she enjoys being a waitress. Milly discovers she's actually quite a good cook, and meets a man who eventually wants to marry her. Adua also finds a man who she gradually falls for despite the fact that he is literally a used car salesman. Marilina takes off one day and comes back with her son, and his presence awakens a side of her she likely never knew existed. The restaurant becomes a hit and is full every night. By the time the two months are up, the women have grown not only comfortable with their new surroundings and employment, they are actually enjoying themselves to a degree they never thought possible.
So when Ercoli sends their first…visitor, it shakes them to their cores and re-routes their paths to happiness. The scene where they have to decide which of them has to service the visitor is a poignant testimony to how much they've changed.
Signoret stands out in a strong cast. She seems alternately old then young, as befits a woman of her age in her line of work. She is tough as nails yet still naïve enough to trust a shyster. Riva overacts at points, but her character is painted as sanguine and temperamental, so she never goes beyond the point of believability. Rovere's Milly has the largest this-life versus that-life character arc to cover and she plays what amounts to two roles without any seeming effort. Lolita has the least to do and sometimes gets a bit lost in the shuffle of the other women's dramas, but Milo's perky smile keeps her from getting completely covered up.
Adua and her Friends is shot in crisp 1.66:1 black and white, which fits it as well or better than color could. There are some night scenes that contain an unnaturally bright sky, as might be expected from a black-and-white film made in 1960. The subtitles are clear and easy to read, but there is no dub so what you see is what you get, so to speak. The sound is a mono 2.0 track, with no other options, but you don't really need surround sound for a film like this.
The movie comes with a pamphlet containing cast and credits, a synopsis of the film, a brief biography of Pietrangeli, and an essay entitled "Prospectus" by Bruno Di Marino, which gives his views of the movie, Pietrangeli, and his own views of Italy circa 1959.
The disc itself contains an Introduction by Maurizio Porro which consists of the film critic sitting in a chair and discussing much the same things as Di Marino does in the pamphlet. There is also a brief and un-illuminating photo gallery; a director biography written in a font so big that only six or seven lines appear on the screen at once, leading to a constant pressing of the "next" arrow; Pietrangeli's filmography; and a pat-ourselves-on-the-back credit screen for the fine folk at RaroVideo. The lone standout is a reasonably clever short film called, Girandola 1910, about a doctor who helps a series of patients who all have the same ailment. Sort of.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The score. Oh, the score. There are large segments of the movie without music at all, but when it plays, Piero Piccioni's upbeat, Mancini-esque pseudo-jazz seems jarringly out of place. It saps about three tons of emotional weight from the linchpin scene of the film. Perhaps it was meant to act as some sort of counterweight irony, but if so, it fails miserably.
Adua and her Friends is a moving picture of four women who think they know what they want only to discover that they really want something totally different. It's a bittersweet film that I'll be carrying around in my head for the next several days.
Everyone involved is found not guilty of creating a bad film, although Piccioni and Pietrangeli must pay fines for the misdemeanor Misuse of a Score.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
Review content copyright © 2011 Josh Rode; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.