Sunday, 20 November 2016

Five Branded Women (1960)

Five different women from a small Yugoslavian town in WW2 are humiliated and banished for having relations with a womanising German Officer. Forced to rely on themselves and their new found friendship the five women join the local partisan group and are forced to make decisions about life, love and death.

(An exploitive poster that really reflects nothing of the film!)

An American-Italian film, directed by Martin Ritt and featuring an all star, international cast including, Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Barbara Bel Geddes, Carla Gravina, and Van Heflin, Five Branded Women questions what war is about. Is it really a battle between good and evil or is it actually a battle between men and women? Is anyone really innocent during war time?
The film centres on five women, Jovanka (Mangano), Ljuba (Moreau), Daniza (Miles), Marja  (Bel Geddes) and Mira (Gravina).  The women are portrayed sympathetically despite their 'crime'. Each have a different reason for sleeping with the officer and these reasons further complicate the problems of occupation.
Daniza has one of the most haunting story lines, unlike the others she did not have a sexual relationship with the Nazi Officer, but is punished along with the rest. When she does fall in love, with Blanco, seemingly the 'right' choice, for he is on the 'right' side, she is shot because relationships are not allowed within the partisans. The double standard is obvious and confronting, and the strong willed Jovanka is vocal in her contempt. The German Officer's lust is no different to that of Blanco's and in both cases a woman suffers for a mans desire. The German Captain who is captured by Ljuba is shown to be both intellectual and kind, in stark contrast to the rough, violent partisans. Even Jovanka finds her personal beliefs threatened when she finds herself developing feelings for the partisan leader, Velko (Heflin). In each case what constitutes good and evil is questioned and threatened.

Perhaps ironically however the war also gives the women a certain amount of power. As the partisans are short on man power, the five outcasts are readily welcomed into their ranks, allowing them to fight alongside the men, something that would never have been allowed outside of war time. When their heads are shaved the women literally and metaphorically shed their femininity. The Nazi Officer on the other hand is mutilated and loses his masculinity. The film portrays, in a very literal way, an event that often took place during war time, the reversal of male and female roles.

(The haunting Jeanne Moreau in a publicity still for the film)

Shaving the heads of women believed to have had sexual relationships with Nazis was common practice, especially after the war ended. These women were subjected to horrific humiliation and abuse, and many of them had done no more than cook for a soldier in their home
There is no clear cut answer to the films questions, and the lines of good vs. evil are blurred, yet the film is a fascinating and often moving portrayal of female experience during a time of war.


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