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Sophia Loren: La signora di Napoli

Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Alessandro Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad (1954)

On Friday evening, Edoardo Ponti, the younger son of Sophia Loren and the late producer Carlo Ponti, will launch the weeklong, thirteen-film series Sophia Loren: La Signora di Napoli at Film at Lincoln Center. Following a screening of The Life Ahead (2020), starring his mother as a Holocaust survivor who takes a troublemaking street kid under her wing, Ponti will take part in a Q&A.

Reviewing The Life Ahead for the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney wrote that, throughout her long and illustrious career, “Loren has embodied a rich spectrum of Italian womanhood: Sultry and volatile, warm and maternal, glamorous but also gritty and authentic. Directing his mother for the third time following 2002’s Between Strangers and the 2014 short The Human Voice, Ponti fully capitalizes on those qualities, tailoring the role to her earthy magnetism, her natural humor and tenacity. He serves up the screen legend with her proud physical hauteur frayed by the sad reality of declining health, anchoring her character in a milieu of poverty and struggle that tugs at the heartstrings.”

Directly after Friday’s Q&A, Ponti will introduce a restoration of the film that made Loren an international sensation, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960). The film is set during the Second World War, with bombs falling on Rome, and follows a widow (Loren) and her twelve-year-old daughter (Eleanora Brown) as they flee the city for the mountainous countryside, where they befriend an anti-fascist (Jean-Paul Belmondo). After the Allies capture Rome, the two women head back, and on the way, they’re assaulted by Moroccan soldiers.

Revisiting Two Women in 2017, Kim Morgan recalled what De Sica had told Loren: “You have actually lived this story yourself, Sophia. You survived the war. You know all there is to know about it. If you can become this woman, without any thought as to how you look, without trying to restrain your emotions, letting everything flow into this character, I guarantee that you will give a wonderful interpretation of it.” Loren won Best Actress awards in Cannes and from the British and Italian academies, and she became the first actor to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance.

As a child, Loren lived with her mother and younger sister in Pozzuoli, near Naples. When the war broke out, the town’s munitions plant became a frequent target of Allied bombing raids, and when Sophia’s young chin caught a bit of flying shrapnel, her mother moved the girls into the city. In 1950, when she was fifteen, Loren entered a beauty pageant and won the title of Miss Elegance. Just one year later, she was in Rome and scoring her first minor roles in several films.

It was during this period that she met Carlo Ponti, who was twenty-two years older. To make a long and rather complicated story short, the two were finally able to marry in 1966, but their partnership was sealed at the outset. It was Ponti who changed her name from Sofia Lazzaro to Sophia Loren, and over the next few years, those minor roles made way for major ones.

FLC will premiere a new restoration of Alessandro Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad (1954), a playful romantic comedy that moves with the zip of a screwball pitch, and features Loren as a petty thief and Marcello Mastroianni as a cab driver. “This masterpiece of comedic timing placed [Loren], for the first time, alongside the eminently watchable Mastroianni and the (surprising) comedic talent of Vittorio De Sica, who plays her swindling, sweet-talking father,” wrote Carla Marcantonio in her report on the 2022 edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato for Film Quarterly. The festival presented a retrospective that year, Forever Sophia, and programming committee member Emiliano Morreale observed of Loren that “she was an image of an ‘Italian’ that looked exotic even to Italians.”

Loren costarred with Totò, Italy’s “prince of laughter,” in Mario Mattoli’s Poverty and Nobility (1954), a colorful farce set in nineteenth-century Naples, and she appeared with De Sica again—as well as with Franca Valeri and Alberto Sordi—in Dino Risi’s 1955 comedy The Sign of Venus. The following decade brought two of the greatest Loren-Mastroianni matchups, both of them directed by De Sica: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). Yesterday, the winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, tells three stories and features Loren as Adelina of Naples, Anna of Milan, and Mara of Rome. “Regardless of the situation or the persona, Sophia Loren is, quite simply, radiant,” writes Jeremy Carr in the Notebook.

“About ten minutes after Arabesque gets under way, you’ll lose track of its plot completely, and that’s as it should be,” wrote Grace Glueck in the New York Times when Stanley Donen’s comedic spy thriller opened in 1966. Arabesque offers “lush décor, gimmicky locations, and hair-raising pursuits,” wrote Glueck. “And, of course, Sophia Loren, a stunning bit of animated scenery who is not called upon to act but to Dior. She manages to accomplish this seductively, both in and out of a series of lavish costumes and through such tribulations as murder, boudoir scenes with a fetishist lover, and pursuit, in a construction pit, by a steel wrecking ball.”

Francesco Rosi’s More Than a Miracle (1967) anchors its Cinderella story in seventeenth-century Italy and features Omar Sharif as a dashing prince and Loren as a temperamental peasant. “The beautiful thing is, everything works,” wrote Roger Ebert.Peter Cowie has called Rosi “the most assured and socially committed Italian filmmaker of his generation”; Ebert observed that he was “apparently a romantic at heart.”

Revisiting A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Loren and Marlon Brando, for Film Comment in 2017, Mark Harris reminded us that the initial response to Charlie Chaplin’s final film was brutally dismissive. Harris had not come to salvage its reputation. He noted that “the agony that went into its production is palpable; it’s all text, not subtext.” Chaplin “had seen Loren in the comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and had been captivated by her. She wasn’t the problem; it was the lethal combination of a director in his late twilight and a male lead deep into his pre-Godfather period of obstinacy.”

Another poorly received film that FLC programmers invite us to reconsider is Robert Altman’s “underrated, deliciously catty fashion industry satire,” Ready to Wear (1994), featuring one of Altman’s signature casts full-to-bursting with stars. “There are some nice moments here,” found Roger Ebert. Loren and Mastroianni, “rerunning the striptease scene from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1964), find a kind of elegiac tone that reminded me of a magical moment from Fellini’s final film, Intervista, where Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg remembered their great fountain scene from La dolce vita.

On Sunday, Edoardo Ponti will introduce De Sica’s final film, The Voyage (1974). Loren delivers what FLC programmers call “one of her most wrenching performances” as a widow falling in love (again) with her late husband’s brother (Richard Burton). Ponti will introduce Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977) on Saturday. The special day is May 6, 1938, when Hitler and his entourage arrived in Rome to parade around with Mussolini. In a nearly abandoned apartment complex, one man and one woman each have their reasons for not attending the festivities.

“Though not quite a love story,” wrote Deborah Young in 2015, A Special Day “perversely plays on the auras of two long-­standing icons of screen romance, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, turning the audience’s desire for cinematic passion upside down. Who could have imagined the glamorous Loren playing a mousy hausfrau in an old robe and slippers, or Mastroianni, the prototypical Latin lover, as a gay intellectual?” Loren’s neglected wife and mother “is not a diva’s role . . . Yet there is a beckoning intimacy in the star’s wide green eyes that conveys an unmistakable, familiar challenge to Mastroianni.”

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