Loren: La grande bellezza

The golden days of an Italian icon.

by Richard Mowe

Sophia Loren: "I had never gone to theatre school or taken acting lessons but I did the best I could."
Sophia Loren: "I had never gone to theatre school or taken acting lessons but I did the best I could." Photo: Richard Mowe

A vision in a shimmering white trouser suit and cascading curls, Sophia Loren has appeared in person at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with reserves of good grace, tears at the memory of Marcello Mastroianni (this year’s iconic poster image) and some self-deprecating humour.

Her hard-luck beginnings in Naples where the family, with a frequently absent father, had to scrape a living to keep body soul together were, she says, “the saddest time of my life.”

All that changed, of course, when she met Vittorio De Sica in 1954, leading to a collaboration that spanned more than 14 films over 20 years, including Gold Of Naples and Marriage Italian Style, shown in restored copies at the Festival.

Sophia Loren with Festival director Thierry Fremaux.
Sophia Loren with Festival director Thierry Fremaux. Photo: Richard Mowe

DeSica seemed to have been the first person to know how to exploit her looks on camera. “I had never acted in a major film before. I had always thought my nose was too long and my mouth was too wide and I used to audition after audition without being hired. He was supposed to audition me for The Gold Of Naples and we talked together in Neapolitan. After that he said I was hired and that he did not need to audition me. He told me to come to Naples to start shooting in three days time. I almost fainted.

“This was my first major role, playing the voluptuous wife of a pizza maker, and it launched my career in a spectacular fashion. I had never gone to theatre school or taken acting lessons but I did the best I could and with De Sica’s help and knowledge and sense of style we create a character who is still talked about.”

The next film, which confirmed her talents, was Two Women, based on an Alberto Moravia story named after its heroine, Cesira, “la Ciociara.” By the time Loren’s producer-boyfriend Carlo Ponti approached De Sica with the project of adapting the Moravia story, she was on the verge of international stardom. She won an Oscar for her role and there was no turning back.

Loren who is 80 this year, seems to be content with her lot, and only occasionally feels the need to go to work. She was prised out to star in La Voce Umana (The Human Voice), directed by her 40-year-old son, Edoardo Ponti. The story is based on a one-person play first performed in 1930, written by the French poet and writer Jean Cocteau.

Sophia Loren: "Every so often in life you have to explode and let go completely.”
Sophia Loren: "Every so often in life you have to explode and let go completely.” Photo: Richard Mowe

Unlike the stage version, which was written in French, the screen version is performed in Neapolitan dialect and was set in Rome, Naples and Ostia, the port city just west of Rome.

The role was Loren’s first acting work of any kind in three years, when she starred in the Italian television movie La Mia Casa E’ Piena Di Specchi (My House Is Full Of Mirrors), an autobiographical film in which she played her own mother.

It was not the first time Ponti had directed his mother in a film: she had also starred in his 2002 drama Cuori Estrani (Between Strangers).

The main focus of her life these days is her family and grandchildren. “And at my age you count all the hours and the minutes you spend with them,” she says with unalloyed delight.

She describes herself as rather nervous and shy. “On the other hand I feel the need to be challenged and to fight. The film with my son has forced me to think about doing other things and I always want to try to improve. Not so long ago I saw a Pirelli calendar and the pictures were beautiful. Every so often in life you have to explode and let go completely.”

She believes firmly that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She claims she has never considered herself as a great beauty. Before directors learned how to light and photograph her she had difficulties. “They used to say I wasn’t at all photogenic, and I certainly did not want to be typed as a beautiful doll, without any intelligence.”

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