The story centers on Cesira (Loren), a widowed Roman shopkeeper, and Rosetta (Brown), her devoutly religious twelve-year-old daughter, during World War II. To escape the Allied bombing of Rome, Cesira and her daughter flee southern Lazio for her native Ciociaria, a rural, mountainous province of central Italy. The night before they go, Cesira sleeps with Giovanni, a neighbouring coal dealer who agrees to look after her store in her absence.
After they arrive at Ciociaria, Cesira attracts the attention of a young local intellectual with communist sympathies named Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Rosetta sees Michele as a father figure and develops a strong bond with him. However, Michele is eventually taken prisoner by a company of German soldiers, who hope to use him as a guide to the mountainous terrain.
Cesira decides to return to Rome once the Allied troops end German occupation. On the way home, Cesira and Rosetta are gang-raped inside a church by a group of Goumier—Moroccan soldiers of the French Army. Rosetta is traumatized, becoming detached and distant from her mother and no longer an innocent child.
When the two manage to find shelter at a neighbouring village, Rosetta disappears during the night, sending Cesira into a panic. She thinks Rosetta has gone to look for Michele, but later finds out that Michele was killed by German soldiers. Rosetta returns, having been out dancing with an older boy, who has given her silk stockings, despite her youth.
Cesira is outraged and upset, slapping and spanking Rosetta for her behavior, but Rosetta remains unresponsive, emotionally distant. When, however, Cesira informs Rosetta of Michele's death, Rosetta begins to cry like the little girl she had been prior to the rape. With her mother comforting the child, De Sica zooms out to end the film.
The film was based on a 1957 novel by Alberto Moravia, La Ciociara (The Woman From Ciociara). It was inspired by Moravia's experiences during World War II.
Carlo Ponti bought the film rights along with Marcello Girosi for a reported US$100,000. Sophia Loren was always meant to star and there was some talk that the film might be financed by Paramount, with whom Loren had made a number of movies. Anna Magnani was going to play the lead and Loren was going to be her daughter. George Cukor was going to direct as part of a two-picture deal with Ponti, the other one being Heller in Pink Tights (1960). The film was going to be shot as part of a six-picture deal between Ponti and Paramount.
Cukor and Paramount dropped out. Vittorio De Sica became attached as director. Magnani pulled out, supposedly because she did not want to play Loren's mother, leading to Loren taking Magnani's role, even though the former was only 26 at the time. However De Sica says it was his decision for Loren to play Magnani's role and cast a younger performer as the daughter "for great poignancy. If in doing this we moved away from original line of Moravia, we had better opportunity to stress, to underline, the monstrous impact of war on people. The historical truth is that the great majority of those raped were young girls."
Magnani said she was going to do it, "Moravia wanted me, but Ponti got it and Moravia did not fight. After that they went through all the roles I'd turned down for Sophia Loren to play." "The book was one of the most beautiful I've ever read," said Loren. ""I thought it was worth taking the risk at 25 to play an older woman because the story was so beautiful." Loren later said her performance was inspired by her memories of her mother during the war. She also said she greatly helped by her experience acting in Desire Under the Elms (1958).
Ponti raised money from France and Italy. French investment was conditional upon a French star being used, which lead to the casting of Jean Paul Belmondo, who had leapt to international fame in Breathless (1960). Belmondo's voice was dubbed into Italian.
Joseph E. Levine agreed to buy US release rights after watching only nine minutes of the film. "I bet Sophia she'd win the Oscar and I nursed that film like a baby," Levine later said. He showed the film in every city that a member of the Academy jury lived and promoted it assiduously. "That showed foreign films could get big audiences if promoted with flair," said Levine.
The movie was among the 30 most popular films at the French box office that year.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Sophia Loren, due largely to heavy promotion by its North American distributor, Joseph E. Levine. This was the first time an acting Oscar had been given for a non-English-speaking performance, although she made the English dubbing for her role herself. Loren was too nervous to attend the ceremony and elected to stay in Rome instead. Greer Garson accepted the award on Loren's behalf.
Loren also won the award for Best Actress at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Loren won 22 international awards for Two Women.
La Ciociara was remade for television in 1988. It was adapted by Diana Gould, Lidia Ravera, Dino Risi and Bernardino Zapponi. It was directed by Risi and starred Loren, Robert Loggia, Leonardo Ferrantini, Dario Ghirardi and Sydney Penny.