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film There’s Still Tomorrow Shows Women’s Fight for Freedom

Paola Cortellesi’s film There’s Still Tomorrow offers a striking portrayal of working-class women fighting gendered violence in late 1940s Italy.

Still from There's Still Tomorrow. ,(Universal Pictures)

Delia dances, a disjointed puppet in the hands of her husband, Ivano. He spins her around, throws her into the air, catches her, pulls her by the hair, turns her over onto one of his arms, pitches her back against the wall, slaps her, picks her up again, and strangles her. Two bodies in motion repel, approach, and jostle with each other to the stripped-down rhythm of “Nessuno” [Nobody], a song by Italian singer Mina, famous in the 1960s. Only a bass line, that of the man, sets the tone for the scene. The voice — the woman’s — seems to be mimicking outright madness: “No one, I swear, no one, not even fate, can separate us, because this love will shine with eternity, eternity, eternity.”

There’s Still Tomorrow by Paola Cortellesi — she is director, female lead, and cowriter of the screenplay — has the effect of a brutal slap in the face, the same one that hits Delia, the heroine she plays, in the first minute of the movie. Filmed in black and white, this cinematic gem plunges us into postwar Italy, a Rome still occupied by Allied troops, but at an indefinite date until the final scene (spoiler alert). The action takes place in the working-class neighborhoods of the capital, where we follow the life of Delia, mother of three children, two young boys and a teenage daughter named Marcella. Cortellesi shows us with great sensitivity the living and working conditions imposed on women. Delia takes on a series of jobs (umbrella repairer, laundress, seamstress, domestic help) for which she is underpaid “because she’s a woman,” while taking care of the family household, her violent husband (played by an astonishing Valerio Mastandrea), and his father with wandering hands, whom she washes and feeds.

A nod to neorealism, the movie alternates between drama and comedy. Music plays an essential role. Cortellesi delegates to song the irony of the situation of women, imprisoned in an Italy emerging from war and fascism, yearning for change. A longing embodied by the young Marcella, for whose future Delia is ready to make any sacrifice, but who is enraged by her mother’s submission: “I’d rather die than end up like you,” she tells her. But it is also through music that the director wants to make us aware of the continuity of the oppression suffered by women in the peninsula and elsewhere, bringing into a black-and-white film very contemporary sounds, those of Fabio Concato, Lucio Dalla, or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Cortellesi tells us about the discrimination suffered by women in a patriarchal, sexist society where physical and verbal violence is a ritual — accompanied by the injunction to remain silent in both public and private. Delia symbolizes the gender segregation suffered by the overwhelming majority of women in terms of pay, status, and position in society, but also in terms of spatial organization, including at the family table, where she is not welcome. Dispossessed of her poor little basement apartment, Delia is also dispossessed of her body (“When you leave,” Ivano tells his daughter, “there won’t be a woman left in this house”). She is the prisoner of her husband, a tyrannical janitor; her friend Marisa warns her that he’ll end up killing her.

Crossing Streets Free of Violence

“The streets that women cross are streets free of violence”: the slogan of the Italian feminist organization Non Una Di Meno (Not One Less) seems echoed in Delia’s quick, confident stride as she crosses the city each day on her way to her various jobs. From the seemingly submissive woman in the family sphere, she becomes determined. She defies her husband’s authority, notably by stopping at the garage of her childhood sweetheart, a kind, shy man who is about to leave to look for work in the North and who invites her with his eyes to accompany him. But she also — above all — defies convention with her best friend, Marisa, with whom she smokes, laughs, and drinks coffee at the bar, sweetening it generously under the bartender’s reproachful gaze.

Beyond Marcella’s anger at her mother, the director weaves the mother-daughter bond through the glances they exchange: Marcella’s, a mixture of fear, compassion, and despair, a haunting gaze in which the violence suffered by her mother is imprinted, and Delia’s, tender and harsh at times, but in which hovers the hope of a better future for her daughter, in which she knows she must play a prime role. Isn’t her own submissiveness setting the tone for Marcella to do the same? Isn’t her own liberation the condition for her daughter’s freedom?


Suddenly, a bang: the café of Marcella’s future in-laws burns down under the watchful eyes of Delia and William, a young African American GI who has seen the marks left on her body by Ivano’s blows. They met by chance during her travails in Rome. Also an oppressed man, lost in an eternal city whose language he doesn’t speak, William has lost the only link to his distant family in the United States, a photo that Delia discovers on the ground in the mud and returns to him. William wants to help her get out of hell. Their various encounters unfold like a dream, culminating in the surreal scene of the café explosion to prevent Marcella’s marriage to the man who turns out to be a variation of Ivano.

Delia rebels against the commandments of a patriarchal, sexist society that is also preparing to crush her daughter. Cortellesi entrusts her heroine’s empowerment to a letter, the first one she receives. Delia reads it, hides it, crumples it up, throws it away, picks it up, reads it again, loses it. . . a letter that the director makes us believe is from the other man, the good man, the mechanic, her childhood sweetheart. But wouldn’t it be rather limiting if that was all it was?

In a whirlwind, the last minutes of the movie reveal the meaning of this folded envelope — a ballot paper — and this story, a story of struggle for emancipation. Not just Delia’s, but that of all the women who came together in public for the first time on June 2, 1946, to make their voices heard after twenty years of fascism. On that day, Italy chose the Republic over the monarchy, which had collaborated closely with Fascism. Not just any election, but a vote that reflected the achievements of several years of armed resistance to fascism, in which women had participated.

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To the tune of Daniele Silvestri’s “A bocca chiusa,” a choral ending that thumbs its nose at the silence imposed on women, the final scene resembles a women’s demonstration:

I’m singing today in the middle of the people / Because I believe or maybe out of decency / That participation is freedom, of course / But it’s also resistance . . . to that old idea that we’re all equal . . . with just this tongue in my mouth and if you cut my tongue too, I won’t stop and I’ll sing with my mouth closed . . . look how many people know how to answer with their mouths closed too.

The power of this collective of women who decide to take part in the vote and who sing “even” with their mouths closed stuns Ivano. It links Delia’s individual fate to that of the women on the march, to that of Marcella, who for the first time, full of recognition and emotion, looks at her mother, whom she has liberated and who liberates her in return.

In Italy, Cortellesi’s movie outsold not only Barbie (released at the same time), but also Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful. This success proves, if proof were needed, that the director has succeeded in speaking to a new generation of women and men, in a country where a woman dies every four days at the hands of her partner or ex-partner; a country that only legalized divorce in 1970 and abortion in 1978, a law that is trampled underfoot every day by the refusal of entire gynecological departments across the peninsula to enforce it; a country that only outlawed “honor killings,” i.e., legal feminicide, in 1981 and only changed the definition of rape in 1996 (until then, it had been associated with a “crime against public morals”); a country recently condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for gender stereotyping and sexual violence; a country now ruled by right-wing parties that refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention on gendered violence in the European Parliament.

“To write women’s history is to fight against the great nocturnal silence that always threatens to swallow them up,” wrote French historian Michelle Perrot. Cortellesi’s film is a particularly successful representation of this ongoing struggle, in which nothing is ever taken for granted, because there’s still tomorrow. Poetic, moving, political, dreamlike, and surprising, this is a great modern fable not to be missed.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in French in AOC.


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Stefanie Prezioso is associate professor at Lausanne University and author of numerous works on European anti-fascism.

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