Oscar Actors: Loren, Sophia–Third Award for Italian Actress in The Life Ahead?

Rendering an impressively naturalistic performance in the upcoming Netflix drama The Life Ahead, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, Sophia Loren, already a two-time Oscar winner, should be considered seriously for the Best Actress Oscar this year.

 

“He knows me very well, every inch of my face, of my heart, of my soul,” legendary actress Sophia Loren says about her son, Edoardo Ponti, who co-wrote the script and directed her upcoming movie, The Life Ahead, which brought her out of a decade-long retirement. A product of Palomar Italy, the movie will be released by Netflix in select theaters and begin streaming on November 13.
The movie was the perfect star vehicle for a comeback: Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor living on the Italian coastal of Bari, where she forms a special friendship with Momo, a Senegalese immigrant boy.
It’s not the first screen version of Romain Gary’s well-received 1975 novel, which he had initially published under the pseudonym of “Emile Ajar.” In 1977, Simone Signoret played the title role in Madame Rosa, a film helmed by Israeli  director Moshe Mizrahi, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Loren says she has admired Signoret for years for two reasons: “She was a formidable, amazing actress, and she was a very good and loyal wife to Mr. Yves Montand.”

Sophia Loren who is smiling and looking at the camera: Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP© Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

In preparation for their version, however, Loren and her director have avoided revisiting Signoret’s film.   She claims that their film is closer to the book in that, “it is telling the story through the point of view of the young boy.” The book was originally published in English as Momo, and in 1986, it was republished as The Life Before Us. Significantly, they decided to keep the original title, The Life Ahead, a literal translation of the novel’s original title, La vie devant soi. 
There’s also a deeper, more spiritual motivation to stick close to the book, which reflects Loren’s upbeat view of life, despite the poverty and hardships of her youth in War-torn Italy.
“The energy and passion with which my mother approaches every scene is a marvel to watch,” Edoardo says. It’s a feeling shared by Loren: “I put everything, everything that I have on the line, emotionally and physically, into my character. I wanted to make this challenging movie more realistic, more believable.”
For the Italian legend, family is everything these days. But it was not always that way.  As is well known, Loren had a highly-publicized romance with Cary Grant, who she met on the sets on their movies together–The Pride and the Passion and Houseboat–and who she credits with teaching and improving her English, when she arrived in Hollywood.
Grant proposed to her, but in 1966, Loren decided to wed Italian producer Carlo Ponti Sr., who was instrumental in launching her career. She had remained with Ponti for 41 years, until his death in 2007, and together they had raised two sons, Carlo Ponti Jr., 51, who’s a conductor, and Edoardo, who’s 47.
Living in the Moment
Looking back, Loren says she has always lived in the moment: “If you don’t take the opportunity to do things at the right time, what are you waiting for?” This was the reason for going back to Italy after spending several years in Hollywood.  The industry simply did not know what to do with her–as an actress or as a sex symbol. As a result, she wen on making one inconsequential movie after another, Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, Legend of the Lost with John Wayne, It Started in Naples with Clark Gable.
Boy on a Dolphin
She recalls vividly how the love scenes between her leading man Alan Ladd in Boy on a Dolphin presented problems for director Jean Negulesco and his crew. The disparity in heights between the 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) Loren, and the 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) Ladd, created a complicated shoot: “Some of our scenes together required him to stand on a box, while others forced a trench to be dug for me, when we were seen walking along the beach.”
Before Two Women, I was a performer, afterward, I was an actress
Back in Italy, she was rewarded with the best screen role of her career, as Cesira, a widowed shopkeeper andsingle mother fleeing Rome, in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (La ciociara, based on Alberto Moravia’s story).  A powerful tale set in WWII, Two Women depicts in graphic detail the horrors of survival, including a brutal gang-rape of Loren’s character and her teenage daughter by soldiers inside a church.
She received for this part the 1961 Best Actress Oscar, thus becoming the first player in the Academy’s history to win the coveted award for a foreign language movie. At first. Loren announced ecstatically that she would attend the ceremonies: “I felt that just being nominated was an honor in itself, and a rare one at that, for an Italian actress in an Italian film.” But then, upon reflection, Loren changed her mind: “My competition was formidable (Audrey Hepburn, Piper Laurie, Geraldine Page, and Natalie Wood). I could not bear the ordeal of sitting in plain view of millions of viewers while my fate was judged. I said to myself, ‘If I lost, I might faint from disappointment; If I won, I would also very likely faint with joy.’ Instead of spreading my fainting all over the world, I decided it was better that I faint at home.”
Loren had no real expectations to win, but “hope being the eternal rogue that it is, on Oscar night, I was too nervous to sleep.” Photographer Pier Luigi came to Loren’s Rome apartment to keep the vigil with her.  There was no coverage then of the Awards on Italian television or radio. At three o’clock in the morning, Loren tried to go to bed, “but my eyes would not close and my heart would not stop pounding, so I went back to the living room to talk to Pier.” By six o’clock, knowing that the ceremony in Los Angeles over, she was sure she hadn’t won. However, at 6:45, she was awakened by Cary Grant’s pleasant voice over the phone, conveying the good news. She recalls: “I didn’t faint, but I went giddy. It was incontestably the greatest thrill of my life. Before I made Two Women, I had been a performer. Afterward, I was an actress.”
Alongside Two Women, Loren singles out The Human Voice, also directed by Edoardo, as “the most difficult films I have made in my life.”  Based on Jean Cocteau’s iconic one-act play of 1930, Loren’s 2014 version transported the setting to Naples circa 1950. Loren plays Angela, a woman who rides the emotional roller coaster during one last phone conversation with the man she loves, as he is leaving her for another woman.  “It was one the hardest picture to do, because it’s about the love of a woman for a man who abandons her. It was a very sad story that really drove me crazy at the end, because I did not agree with what Cocteau wrote. I was really in agony, I have never cried so much in my life as I had while making that picture.”
She elaborates: “It’s a short play, one act, but it’s incredibly long when you do it. I understand why so many actresses want to do it–it’s a  tour de force, because of the strength and the violence in this kind of this passionate love, and the sadness at the end.”  Almodovar’s version of The Human Voice with Tilda Swinton premiered last month at the Venice Festival, and Loren says that she “very much looks forward to seeing it.”
Edoardo explains the process of working with his mother: “We shot Human Voice over the course of 10 days, but we rehearsed for over three weeks. We were sitting opposite each other, going through every line, trying to personalize every moment.  My mother is not an actress who likes to rehearse, she’s very instinctive, but I told her, ‘if we don’t rehearse, we’re going to hit the same note over and over again, and when we’re going to cut it together it’s going to feel very repetitive. So we need the rehearsal to shape the emotional arc of your performance, to personalize every line.’ We talked about her life and her loves, and it was really an amazing experience, because I learned facts about my mother that I didn’t know.”
Impossible to get food, impossible to live
The Life Ahead was also challenging in a different way: “I related to Madame Rosa very personally, because it brought memories of my life when we had war in Italy and I was a little girl. It was very much suffering, because we had bombs going every night. It was impossible to go to school, it was impossible to get food. It was impossible to live.”
She complaints that, “many people don’t regard immigrants and refugees as human beings, they walk past by them on the street, and maybe only eight or nine inches separate them and yet they’re a world apart from one another.  The story of friendship between Madame Rosa and Momo, everything separates them, age, race, religion, culture, and yet in the end, they are two opposite sides of the same coin, because they’re both survivors. They connect through pain and the fact that they both were raised without a family.”
As always, her interpretation is based on intimate affinity: “The beginning of empathy is the ability to live into the skin of somebody, to really know what it feels to live their life.” But the film is not just an historical piece: “Rosa’s story was something quite close to what was happening then, but it is also quite close to what is happening right now. You have to make sure that you are doing something that you can do, because otherwise you have things happening to you without even knowing.”
For Loren, despite the story’s sad ending, The Life Ahead “is more about rebirth than mortality: “Death is the beginning of something else, death is a change, a transformation, the close of one chapter is always the beginning of another. What Madame Rosa passes onto Momo is her spirit, her heart, what she has learned from life.  While making it, we never talked about dying, we talked about what it means to start something new.”  She singles out the lyrics of the song that concludes the movie, because “they are really the words that Madame Rosa imparted in Momo, words that she knows he will have in his heart forever.”
Loren is full of praise for the her acting partner who plays Momo (Ibrahima Gueye): “He had never seen a camera and he had never been on a set, so we wanted to make him feel at home.  We took him and his father to our house in Bari, and we gave them wonderful relationship. He was listening to our details of how to do things because it was a new world opening in his eyes.  Ibrahima goes to school now, and I have not seen him, but I’m sure that in his mind he’s still working on our film.”
Speaking of her personal life, Loren says she had chose Geneva as her home long time ago, “because it is a very quiet place to live, very peaceful. And while “Italy will always be in my heart, I’m perfectly content to live in Switzerland. Geneva is very close to Italy, so whenever I want to go to Rome, I just get on a train.  And I stay with my sister Maria (who’s four years younger) or my close friends, who take good care of me.”
She says: “I had traveled a lot, so I really like to stay home, to look at my books. I like to do my own things privately, and sometimes I even like to do a little shopping, but a little bit, not really much. And I like to take walks in the park, alone or with my friends.” Unfortunately, the walks had stopped during the pandemic: “Now a days, I don’t like to go out because I’m afraid, I don’t feel free to go out, it’s scary.”
Ordinary life inspires me
However, always the optimist, she says: “I think every day is an opportunity to do something that you really want to do. Ordinary life inspires me, and my family inspires me. I have two beautiful children and they gave me grandchildren, so I’m surrounded by great love every day.” “My approach to life is very simple,” she elaborates. “I enjoy all the good news that my children tell me about their lives, although they are far away in California, but we talk on the phone and use Facetime.” Loren hopes to be able to visit her family in Los Angeles soon, but for now, she fills her days with routine activities. One habit that’s been consistent over the years, no matter her location or position, is her personal version of religiosity: “I still prays every night, all the prayers that I had learned as a young girl.  I wouldn’t be able to survive without praying.”
Asked about the “outside” political reality, she says: “The world needs empathy, the world needs to come together, we’re being torn apart by social media, by politics, by some leaders. We need to find ways to bring people together, or at least to show them the possibility of coming together, and our movie The Life Ahead tries to do exactly that.”
Too early to think about retiring
Loren, who turned 86 in September, doesn’t plan on retirement if that means sitting idle, or reflecting on her legacy as a world-famous star, even though this year marks her 70th anniversary as a performer, having begun as an extra and bit player in 1950. She received an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievements, in 1991, one of many such awards and tributes.  But she insists with both humility and pride: “It’s a little too early to think about retiring. I’m still alive, I’m still full of things I want to do.  It’s premature to be remembered. No, no, no, it’s too early.”