“We’re like everyone else now — we’re not registered. They’ve burned the records. We’re just ordinary women now.”
In 1958, Italy passed the Merlin Law, which shut down the country’s brothels. Two years later, Antonio Pietrangeli’s film Adua and Her Friends was released, offering a look at the effects of this legislation on four prostitutes. Although the characters and their story are fictional, the challenges they face as they try to start a new life are, no doubt, not unlike those experienced by many of their real world counterparts.
Finding themselves cast out of both their jobs and their homes, Adua (Simone Signoret), Lolita (Sandra Milo), Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva) and Milly (Gina Rovere) decide to pool their resources and open a restaurant. The fact that they know next to nothing about running a restaurant is of little importance. It’s only a front: They intend to use the rooms upstairs for prostitution once the legitimate business downstairs has been established. As far as they’re concerned, this is a definite step forward. For the first time in their careers, they’ll be in charge, with “no boss to exploit us,” as Adua, the group’s leader, points out.
However, their plans soon face a serious setback when their application for a restaurant license is rejected, and they know that it’s because of their supposedly forgotten pasts. “They said they’d burn the files,” Milly says, to which Adua bitterly replies, “They must have lost their matches.” Unwilling to give up on the idea so easily, she turns to Dr. Ercoli (Claudio Gora), a powerful man who promises to get a license for them — with a few strings attached, naturally. He tells Adua that he’ll purchase the house and land that the women are currently renting from another owner, thereby becoming their landlord, and he’ll charge them a million lire a month. It strikes her as a rather steep price, but he reassures her that “girls like you can earn double that.” With no other options available to her, Adua reluctantly accepts this arrangement.
One of Ercoli’s conditions is that there will be no prostitution for the first two months. In the meantime, the women must focus on establishing the restaurant itself, ensuring that it appears to be a perfectly normal, lawful eatery. It’s hard work, and — surprisingly, perhaps — they look forward to the day when they can start taking customers upstairs and leave the kitchen work to other people. “Less tiring,” Marilina says, “and I like it more.” Prostitution is, after all, the only life they’ve known for years — not always a pleasant one, certainly, but they’ve become inured to it, to the point where they can get a bit sentimental about it when they look back.
Gradually, though, they begin to develop a taste for their new life and the changes it offers. Adua and Milly both find romance, the former with fast-talking car salesman Piero (Marcello Mastroianni) and the latter with Emilio (Antonio Rais), a surveyor working at a nearby building site. (Upon meeting Emilio, Milly introduces herself as Caterina, her real name, as if to erase her unsavory history.) Marilina, meanwhile, brings home her son, a little boy of about five whom she’s only seen ten times in his life, having given him up to be raised by someone else. The women even come to enjoy the restaurant business, taking pride in their establishment as it develops into a genuine success, and they become better friends in the process, a far cry from the frequent in-fighting that plagued them earlier.
They don’t seem to comprehend just how much things have changed until one night when they receive a rude awakening in the form of two male customers who were sent to the restaurant by Ercoli — and they’re not there for the food. For the first time, the women realize that they no longer have any desire to return to prostitution. Unfortunately, if they want to keep their restaurant, which is also their home, they have to abide by Ercoli’s wishes. He has the power to evict them, and the power to expose them. “I got it and I can take it away,” he retorts when Adua says that the license is in her name. “A restaurant can’t be run by women like you. You have police records. Understand what that means?”
Indeed, they do. For all the talk of burned records and fresh starts, they can’t escape their pasts, not professionally and not in their private lives either. One person who refuses to judge them — a rarity — is Brother Michele (Duilio D’Amore), a monk from a local convent. “It doesn’t matter what you were. What matters is what you are and will be,” he tells Marilina, but she has no patience for his optimism. “I’ll tell you what we will be: exactly what we were!” she responds. “Why? Because that’s how it is.”
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