Saturday 24 September 2016

Movie Review: Five Branded Women (1960)

An independent war film with a unique perspective, Five Branded Women is a thought-provoking drama delving into the human cost of war, and the warped values that emerge in a world consumed by an endless conflict.

The setting is a small town in Yugoslavia under German occupation in 1943. Womanizing German officer Sergeant Keller (Steve Forrest) is simultaneously seducing five local women. Members of the local anti-Nazi partisan militia, led by Velko (Van Heflin), soon catch up with Keller and summarily extract revenge. The five women are punished for sleeping with the enemy: the partisans forcibly cut their hair short to visibly humiliate them. The embarrassed Nazis evict the disgraced women out of town.

The women are Jovanka (Silvana Mangano), Ljuba (Jeanne Moreau), Daniza (Vera Miles), Marja (Barbara Bel Geddes), and Mira (Carla Gravina). Jovanka perceives war, rather than the Germans, as the enemy interrupting her lust for life. Ljuba is the innocent shop girl looking for an ideal man. Daniza never actually slept with Keller, but was swept up in the roundup of the women. The widow Marja was desperately trying to get pregnant with Keller, while Mira is already carrying his child.

The women have to fend for themselves in the unforgiving war-torn countryside. Jovanka assumes the group's leadership as they sleep rough and steal food to survive. Before long they witness partisan attacks on German convoys and make contact with Velko's militia, which includes the charismatic fighter Branco (Harry Guardino), who has difficulty controlling his libido. The women prove themselves in combat, and even capture the German Captain Reinhardt (Richard Basehart) as a prisoner. But the war is long, and the strain begins to tell.

A Dino De Laurentiis production directed by Martin Ritt, Five Branded Women carries a European sensibility towards the war. Traversing territory devoid of heroes and villains, the Yugoslavian countryside contains mostly victims trying to carve out a path to survival. While there are some cringe-worthy moments of wooden acting and melodramatic dialogue, the film thrives in an environment of humanity shorn of civility and stripped down to the basics of endurance.

Ritt alternates his characters' musings about the war with sharp action scenes, mostly consisting of noisy ambushes as the partisans deploy classic hit and run tactics to make life miserable for the occupying Germans. But the film's impact is carried by the strong-held beliefs of Jovanka and Velko. Jovanka does not care who is at war with whom; she just resents the war for disrupting her quest for a full life, and seeks the opportunities to strike back at the tide of misery. Velko is resigned to becoming a killer, and has parked his soul to the side, fully accepting that his embrace of brutality creates little functional separation between him and the occupiers. Silvana Mangano and Van Heflin bring these two memorable characters to life with a welcome facade of dour determination.

The grim black and white cinematography adds to the appropriately depressed tone: the lush countryside may be beautiful, but now is not the time to admire nature's colours. And in the unhinged reality of a land ravaged by war, ironies prevail. Daniza is punished once for a sin she did not commit with the enemy; she will be punished again for consorting with an ally. Ljuba establishes a relationship with the prisoner Reinhardt. He helps bring life to a countryside filled with death unleashed by his army before presenting Ljuba, who has long been waiting for a decent man, with a stark choice.

War resets the rules of sex, and Five Branded Women is unflinching in dealing with a topic that Hollywood movies typically avoided. The town is obsessed with the liaisons perpetrated by the womanizing Keller. Out in the fields, Branco's first instinct is to rape Jovanka; there is barely a difference between occupiers and freedom fighters in claiming women as trophies. Velko insists that the first rule of his militia is no fraternization between men and women, a goal both noble and impossible.

And although Velko and Jovanka avoid getting romantically entangled, they finally connect intellectually. He wants to free his country at all cost, she wants the freedom to embrace all that a miserable life can offer, and after an audacious militia attack their interests finally intersect, machine gun at the ready, Nazis in pursuit.

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