Adua And Her Friends (Adua e le compagne)

Italy (1960) Dir. Antonio Pietrangeli

Can you really leave your past behind regardless of how hard you work to start anew? Should you be upfront about it or is this a rare case where honesty isn’t the best policy? And who gets to decide if your prior life is that scandalous – you or other people?

In 1958, Italy introduced the Merlin Law which illegalised brothels across the country, forcing many women on the streets or out of work completely. Four prostitutes however decided to make a better, honest future for themselves – Adua (Simone Signoret), Lolita (Sandra Milo), Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), and Millie (Gina Rovere) pool their savings to buy a dilapidated old house on the outskirts of town and turn into a restaurant.

When their licence is refused because of their former occupation, Adua turns to wealthy client, Dr. Ercoli (Claudio Gora), for help. He pays for the licence and rents the building to the women, and in return, after two months, they must start offering “extra services”. This is agreed but the restaurant becomes successful much quicker than expected, but when Ercoli sends clients to them, none of the women wants to resume their old jobs.

Also known as Hungry For Love in some territories, Adua And Her Friends is one of those deceptively simple films that carries plenty of poignancy in the weight of its incisive social commentary. Italian cinema by this point was riding high on the wave of its Neo Realism movement, and whilst this film isn’t in the same category it does pose similar searching questions about modern life.

Prostitution will always be a divisive subject to cover in cinema. The moral subtext has a duty to address both sides of the situation in separating the person from the profession, something which appears easier in fiction than in reality. This forms the basis for the story of Adua and her fellow working girls who aren’t running from their past but not advertising it either, for better or for worse.

The bordellos shutting up shop sees many working girls happy they can now earn with autonomy on the streets. As one of the older women, Adua is aware her time is soon to be up, making her suitably savvy to assume the leader role of the cadre looking to enter the food hospitality trade.

Her friends trust and look up to her, though Lolita, the youngest, feels she is treated like a child, whilst haughty Marilina rebels out of petulance until she reveals she has a young son. It is her running off after an argument that brings dodgy car dealer Piero Silvagni (Marcello Mastroianni) to the restaurant, bringing Marilina back from a heavy night in a bar, and finds himself attracted to Adua.

Millie also has an admirer, Stefano (Gianrico Tedeschi) a smart young architect working nearby. He falls for Millie but the embarrassment of her past prevents her reciprocating though she feels the same way. Meanwhile, fragile Marilina brings her young son to the house to help her forget her priapic ways, and Lolita is on the verge of being conned by two supposed showbiz moguls.   

Such distractions should be ignored, as the restaurant needs to be a success, since Ercoli demanded a monthly rent of 1 million lira, which he is expecting to come from the non-comestible items on the menu. But as this isn’t advertised, the small but steady clientele who visit are content to have their taste buds tantalised instead, and soon the reputation for their good food spreads without the women doing the same with their legs.

Because this all happens quickly, the audience waits for the moment the bottom falls out of this newfound success and the uphill struggle for the women to salvage their reputation begins. Interestingly, it doesn’t occur until the third act, squeezing all the drama of the vertiginous fall from the proverbial penthouse to the outhouse into the film’s final twenty minutes.

Yet it works, and in avoiding the usual plot beats and clichés, it feels fresher and from an emotional perspective, far crueller for the crisis to hit in a swift and devastating manner. The sense of false security created by the likes of Piero, Stefano, and a local monk who stops by, makes the women forget who they once were, as if the bigotry and judgement they feared was all a myth and society had moved on.

For the audience, the prostitutes are clear protagonists despite the candour about their work, though chaste compared to what they could say today. Antonio Pietrangeli does a good job in devising a situation that “humanises” them in the sense of how they are looked down upon by society. The points raised are redacted to a simple question: “If the meal is good does it matter who cooked it?” which Pietrangeli explores from all viable angles and encourages us to reach our own conclusions.

He does so with pithy humour – Lolita told to stop wiggling her bum when walking results in her dropping her plates – pointed drama about male control and hypocrisy, and a very breezy joie de vivre, somewhat apropos as two of the four leads are French, with their dialogue dubbed. This is irrelevant as the chemistry is pitch perfect and even with a hint of being tropes, each woman stands out thanks to the great performances.

Simone Signoret, the veteran of the bunch, holds it altogether as the pillar of the group, ably supported by a febrile turn from Emmanuelle Riva, a modestly earthy Gina Rovere, and Sandra Milo, as the foxy Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida vamp. Marcello Mastroianni, arguably the busiest man in Italian cinema, brings his noted charm with him albeit with a conceited edge.  

If Adua And Her Friends was remade today it would be a darker, much more explicit, and less subtle film which would no doubt miss the point. Therefore, viewing of this smart, observant, and richly humanist opus is required before that happens. An underrated gem.