124. Sophia

Every few years, my parents would bundle into the car and drive all the way to the Avon Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, the nearest art cinema. Why? Sophia and Marcello, naturally. No need for last names.

The charm of these actors, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, both individually and in tandem, makes every one of the thirteen films they made together over thirty years worth watching. And that’s the mission I set for myself during this pandemic lockdown: to see as many as I could somehow get my hands on.

Sophia, who grew up in poverty outside Naples, is especially good when she’s playing a woman of the South, with the pride, gumption and craftiness that it takes to survive. My favorite is Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), a film in three vignettes. In the first, she plays Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette black market street vendor who insists that exhausted husband Marcello impregnate her every year so she will not be jailed for not paying city fines.

Adelina of Naples

In the third vignette, she plays a prostitute who does a strip-tease for Marcello, her customer, who howls like a wolf in anticipation. In their last film together in 1994, Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, they play a briefly-married couple who reunite decades later. As a little wink to their fans, they recreate the same strip-tease, with the same background music and Marcello howling the same way. Although this time, in a nod to their advancing years, when Sophia glances seductively over at him halfway through her dance, he’s fallen fast asleep.

“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”

She also does pathos well. In A Special Day, she plays a Roman housewife whose brutish husband and children have gone off to the parade celebrating Hitler’s arrival in Rome to meet with Mussolini. She must stay home and attend to her domestic duties, and over the course of the special day, meets and falls in love with Marcello, who is also at home in an apartment across the way.

“A Special Day”

Similarly, in Sunflower, she plays a young wife who spends years searching for her husband in Russia, where he was missing in action in the harsh winter of the Italian campaign there in World War II. Again the longing these two actors are able to simply express keeps you riveted to the screen.

I contrast this to the movies Sophia made with some of the biggest names in American movies. In A Countess from Hong Kong, she plays a Russian woman against a young, svelte Marlon Brando. You don’t believe it for a minute, and can’t help being distracted by thoughts of Marlon Brando late in life, both in appearance and Don Corleone voice. In Arabesque, she plays an Arab, against Gregory Peck: it’s as if all they can think to do is cast her as an “exotic” sexpot, and while again she carries the movie, it seems like such a waste of her talent. She had an actual off-screen romance with Cary Grant, but their two movies together don’t sizzle. In fact, the film where they met, The Pride and the Passion, would be nearly unwatchable were it not for the distraction of seeing their co-star Frank Sinatra sporting a bowl haircut and an ersatz Spanish accent.

Cary, Frank and Sophia

The only paring that halfway works is It Started in Naples with Clark Gable, at the end of his life, if you can buy the idea that this aging old goat would have a chance with this young woman who is arguably the most beautiful in the world. But with Marcello, whether in tragedy or with him howling like a wolf, it was movie magic.

Sophia has been on my mind lately, because of two projects she’s been involved in, even now that she’s in her mid-eighties. In The Life Ahead, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, she plays a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who takes in the children of women on the street, and ends up caring for a Senegalese migrant boy. It’s a beautiful film with sensitive performances.

But the one that really blew me away — and that I can’t stop talking about and pressing on people — is What Would Sophia Loren Do? (Netflix). It’s a short documentary about an older Italian-American New Jersey woman who through her own life felt a special bond with Sophia Loren and the characters she played. I won’t say more and spoil the film as it unfolds, but I really insist that you see it — now.

Sophia is quoted as saying that she accepted every offer to co-star with Marcello, without even reading the script, because she had faith in the genius of his acting, and the chemistry between them that lit up the screen. When Marcello died in 1996, Sophia was besieged by reporters at the funeral, and asked what message she had for him. Her reply: “Ciao, Marcello. I will never forget you. You will always be my heart. I know that.” Yes, we know that, too.

One of cinema’s most memorable scenes, revisited

11 thoughts on “124. Sophia

  1. Great article! Reminded me that I need to watch The Life Ahead and I will also try What would Sophia do? Thanks! Kathleen

    Sent from my iPad



    1. I’d love to know what you think after you see What would Sophia Loren Do? It’s only a half-hour, and well worth it. I’ve watched it twice.


  2. This definitely makes me want to check out more Sophia movies! We did watch “The Life Ahead,” which we loved, but had not heard of “WWSLD” – going to watch it as soon as we’re done with our marathon series “A French Village,” our current obsession.


  3. Great story/review. Many movies I hadn’t heard of — a wish list. I have seen both the documentary and her latest, both of which I enjoyed and would recommend. I also think Two Women is a must see.


  4. Dear Gigi, What a beautiful blog post about Sofia and Marcello. I, too, have taken comfort in both during lockdown, together and separately. Do you know her early role in DeSica’s L’Oro di Napoli (1954)? Recently I have started La Fortuna di Essere Donna (1956), also with Mastroianni. Ben suggested I alert you to my literary thriller The Talking Statues, set in Rome and to be published March 15 by Vienna’s danzig&unfried (already available for pre-order on Amazon and other sites). Here’s the cover blurb: What does the message on battered ancient Roman statue Pasquino mean, and why is it seemingly addressed to Charlie Sala, an American scholar writing a book about the city’s “talking statues”? Together with enigmatic Czech lighting designer Pavlina Herecová, he will be pulled into the world of pasquinisti, the ragged and erudite crew of street poets preserving a 500-year-old tradition against black marketeers who are using the statues to sell pillaged Near Eastern artifacts. Featuring centuries-old street lore and climaxing in a 21st century light show that makes the statues speak once more, The Talking Statues twists through historical and literary labyrinths against a savory Roman backdrop. Here’s an article that ran yesterday in PragueLife! https://cz.citymedia.network/prague/features/the-talking-statues-new-literary-thriller-by-praguelife-writer/ You could request a review copy from: ernst.grabovszki@danzigunfried.com mailto:ernst.grabovszki@danzigunfried.com

    Best wishes and congratulations on a fine blog, Andy



    1. We tried to watch L’Oro di Napoli, but could only find a version with Spanish subtitles. We’ll keep looking.

      I thought of you the other day as Tucci went to Lago di Como, and I remembered our wonderful time together there, near the birthplace of your father. Just spectacularly beautiful.

      I look forward to digging into your book.


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