The central germ of an idea that writer-director Antonio Pietrangeli plays around with in Adua and Her Friends is sympathetic to a point. An all-star cast of women, led by Simone Signoret and Hiroshima Mon Amour's Emmanuelle Riva, play prostitutes that try their hand at managing their own restaurant. The impetus behind the film was timely since Italy's Merlin Law had recently passed in 1958, effectively banning brothels and any other form of public solicitation throughout the nation. After a point, however, it becomes clear that Pietrangeli's drama, like Adua and Her Friends's protagonists, is just marking time. It's an overlong, wan post-neorealist condemnation of the way Italy's male-dominated society has deprived women of the right to their independence.
Signoret plays Adua, the eldest woman in the group of prostitutes and the one with the most to gain and/or lose from opening Adua's, a small country restaurant (it's more of a formal sit-down establishment than, say, a trattoria or a café). Adua's former colleagues help her in her fledgling business venture. But they all recognize, without having said anything explicitly to each other, that Adua's restaurant is just a lark. Almost everyone except for Adua knows that they can try to start over if the restaurant fails, but after a point they'll have to all go back to being prostitutes. Other ancillary female protagonists drift in and out of focus in the film (one has a child, another has trouble dating a man), but they all serve as foils to Adua's central need to break out of her hinted-at self-destructive lifestyle. Since prostitution is Adua's old métier, Pietrangeli and his cowriters just assume that we know that hooking is a soul-crushing profession, and so they don't elaborate on what Adua specifically hates about her old job.
Adua's attempts at leaving her likely terrible past behind is infrequently absorbing, like when she's made to confront passively aggressive men that want more from her than she can give them. She can't offer her male customers the variety of food that most restaurant owners can; there's no salad in the larder and barely any fruit. And she can't settle into a stable relationship with charming huckster/car salesman Piero Salvagni (Marcello Mastroianni).
Adua's inability to get and keep what she wants is the cornerstone of Pietrangeli's argument for women's liberation: If she, a sincere and hard-working middle-aged woman, cannot succeed, what Italian woman can? The most sensitive and empowering scene in the film is the one where Piero fails to seduce Adua after offering to take her out for a test drive in a new car. They wind up making out anyway, but only because Adua wants to. The flirtatious, curious look in Signoret's eyes, filmed in close-up, does a far better job of humanizing the fallen woman than either his unremarkable dialogue or listless scenario.
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The picture quality on Raro Video's DVD release is excellent since they used an HD transfer of a restored 35mm print. As a result, cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi's black-and-white photography looks very clean, mostly unmarred by noticeable print wear and tear. The film's 2.0 mono soundtrack is also very strong, or at least as strong as a mono soundtrack can be. The largely dialogue-heavy soundtrack is flat but rarely to a distracting degree.
Unlike most of their American releases, Raro Video thankfully didn't produce a talking-heads-heavy featurette for Adua and Her Friends. Instead, film historian Maurizio Poro provides an articulate and enthusiastic introduction to the film, emphasizing its historical context rather than gossipy production history reports. The written critical essays by Bruno Di Marino, Antonio Maraldi, and Lara Nicoli that Raro Video included in their booklet for the film are all very edifying and engaging as well. Girandola 1910, a short film that director Antonio Pietrangeli contributed to portmanteau film Mid-Century Loves, is on the other hand pretty unenlightening and even less engaging than Adua and Her Friends.
Worth a look for Simone Signoret's smile and Raro Video's immaculate restoration, but the film itself is pretty inessential.