The CGI lioness that materialises at intervals in the Netflix drama The Life Ahead is a sad and sorry-looking thing. It has a glossy gold coat and a twitching gold tail and brings a dose of magic realism to an otherwise gritty 21st-century tale. But it is too skimpy and tame. It lacks exoticism and menace. It pales when compared to the movie’s other big beast.
Ostensibly, The Life Ahead spins the story of Madame Rosa, a fiery samaritan and former sex worker on the coast of southern Italy. But in essence, at heart, it is a luxurious showcase for the 86-year-old Sophia Loren, who strides through the action with her grey hair untethered and her hoop earrings swinging; a Mother Courage for the ages, bruised but unbowed. Directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti, the film mines the actor’s back catalogue, riffs off her colourful life story and stirs memories of the combative characters she played in her heyday, in films such as Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). “Things don’t change too much,” she says. “The body changes. The mind does not.”
The plan had been to premiere the picture in Rome. But then the pandemic intervened, which is why they are having to launch it from the living room of Loren’s house in Geneva, mother and son sat side-by-side at a laptop with the french doors to the garden open at their backs. The Zoom connection is spotty. The image keeps freezing. Ponti is amused, but Loren is borderline exasperated, pining for the old pomp and ceremony. She is still big; it’s just the pictures that got small.
Every major actor carries with them the trace of their earlier films or their personal history. But in the case of The Life Ahead, the evidence feels more obvious, and more lovingly arranged. Romain Gary’s source novel set the tale in Paris. Ponti, though, relocates it to the Adriatic port city of Bari, which he depicts as a rambunctious hurly-burly of Muslims and Jews, saints and sinners, and migrants of all stripes. The place made me think of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row but it is also not dissimilar to Loren’s hometown of Pozzuoli, near Naples. And this has to be at least part intentional.
She pulls a face. “Yes, in a way,” she concedes. “But Pozzuoli is in the past. I lived there during the war, so it’s impossible to compare. Back then, we didn’t have anything. It was hunger, it was war. Everything was against us. We could have died every night.”
It occurs that Loren’s impoverished upbringing – as an illegitimate child in war-torn Catholic Italy – is as much a part of her legend as the fame and fortune that came later, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to separate the fiction from the fact. It is widely assumed that Peter Sarstedt’s 1960s hit single Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? (raggedy children; the backstreets of Naples) was about Loren, despite Sarstedt swearing blind that it wasn’t. I have also read that Loren’s mother used to siphon water from the car radiator, just so she was able to give her starving daughter a drink. But this nugget, too, turns out to be false.
“No, no, no,” says Loren, briefly exasperated all over again. Then a further thought hits her. “What car?” she demands. “We didn’t have a car.”
Her mother, Romilda Villani, was an aspiring actor herself. She won a Greta Garbo lookalike competition and might have gone to the US to work as Garbo’s body double. But events made such a move impossible. She had two kids and no money. Her faithless middle-class lover – the father of her daughters – had all but cut her loose. So Romilda stayed in Naples and it was Sophia who achieved lift-off.
In The Life Ahead, Loren plays Madame Rosa as an exhausted survivor. She is a proponent of hard knocks, a dispenser of tough love. At some point during filming she realised she was channelling Romilda. “My mother’s feelings were all closed off inside herself,” she explains. “I was allowed to be a part of it, never in a good way, never like mother and daughter.”
Ponti chips in. The woman was his grandmother; he has his own perspective. What he most remembers about Romilda was her resilience, her combination of fragility and strength. Those are the qualities that Loren shared with Romilda. “She had a dignity in the way she carried herself. A vitality I remember even when she was 80. She was timeless but somehow quite sexy, despite her age,” he says.
An amateur psychologist might be tempted to view Loren’s career as a realisation of her mother’s dashed dreams. But that is getting the wrong end of the stick. If anything, she says, it was her father not her mother who was the real motivation. She longed for the secure, moneyed life that she felt was her birthright. “I wanted to be able to walk into the kind of places my father walked into. I wanted to understand what it was like to live like he did. I wanted reasons. I wanted answers.” She gives an angry shrug: “But I got nowhere.”
At the 1950 Miss Italia beauty pageant, the 15-year-old first met Carlo Ponti, a film producer who was only two years younger than her mother (they became lovers four years later). Again, it is tempting to regard Ponti as the adult protector she craved. Again, she is having none of it. “I don’t like the word protector,” she says. “It was more that he believed in me.”
It was Ponti, though, who changed her name and moulded her image. Ponti defended her against the Hollywood executives who insisted that her nose was too large and her lips were too full and who, in marketing her as “the Italian Marilyn Monroe”, somehow managed to do a disservice to both actors. And it was Ponti who helped plot her trajectory, so that she landed on the scene like some visitor from another planet; comically gorgeous and dizzyingly versatile, as comfortable in heated melodrama as she was in freewheeling light comedy. Her life turned around and caught her by surprise. She feels that, in hindsight, her harsh early years were a blessing in disguise. Whatever came next could only count as an improvement.
I suggest that her mother must have been cock-a-hoop. “Not at first. She was against new things. She thought I would never be successful, and that was wrong, she was wrong. Later she started to believe that I could maybe be somebody. But it was always a big maybe. To her, the life that I wanted, it was all a dream. And she didn’t believe in dreams.”
The problem, perhaps, was that Loren was so gung-ho in the pursuit of stardom that her mother started to fear for her daughter’s safety. How she would cope if it didn’t happen. How she would cope if it did. “I think maybe she was afraid I would get into a world where I didn’t belong,” she says. “And in a way she was right.”
I am intrigued by Loren’s fleeting Hollywood era in the late 1950s, as a contracted player at Paramount Pictures. This feels like the crossroads, her moment of flux. Ponti, her mentor, was briefly out of the picture and she had a relationship with Cary Grant that sparked on the set of The Pride and the Passion and sputtered during the filming of the 1958 romcom Houseboat. So here was the dream; big as life, full of money. But, as with most dreams, it was chaotic, confusing and not altogether to be trusted.
The way Loren tells it, Hollywood was a mere detour, a nice little adventure, never intended to last. “I mean, yes, I would have liked to learn English and know people in America. But at that time I was – how you say? – fiancee-ing with Carlo. And marriage and children: that was my dream as well.”
I feel we could use her son’s thoughts at this point. He is integral to the story. “Well, yes,” he says. “I’m very grateful she went back to Italy and married my father. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
I ask what the deciding factor was. What was it that made her choose Italy over Hollywood, Ponti over Grant? Her son translates the question and she directs her answer to him. “Because I was in love with your father!”
“To him, Mama,” Ponti murmurs.
She wheels back to the screen. “Because I was in love with his father! Very much so. My life since we met … my life was with him. And it was difficult because of so many things that came in the middle. But still my life was with Carlo, not with Cary Grant.”
“My mother has always been very close to her roots,” Ponti says. “Her roots run very deep. So I do understand the choice of going back to my father, because he represented everything she knew, the country she loved. He was a man whose emotional language she understood.”
Loren has always defined herself as a Neapolitan first and an Italian second. I ask what the difference is and she laughs at my ignorance and says it would take too long to explain. “Naples is so strong, so vital. It’s about music and dance. Books and books of history. Read all the books first and then we can talk.”
The evidence suggests that she made the right choice. Europe provided more fertile ground for her skills. In 1962, she won the best actress Oscar for her turn in the potent wartime drama La Ciociara (Two Women), shot in 1960 by the neorealist director Vittorio De Sica. Loren played Cesira: widowed shopkeeper, embattled mother, a symbol of Italian fortitude and resilience. It is the film that, six decades on, she still considers her favourite, the one that mapped out the ground and pointed the way forward. It is not hard to join the dots from Cesira, through Filumena in Marriage Italian Style, Giovanna in Sunflower, all the way to the redoubtable Madame Rosa in The Life Ahead.
Personally, too, the return to her homeland proved fruitful. She and Ponti remained together until his death in 2007. Edoardo tells me that, growing up, he never saw his parents as a powerhouse couple, “Honestly, it was never about stardom or glamour. It was always about the craft. My parents, if anything, were more like artisans. It was like they were a pair of Italian shoemakers.”
Today, over Zoom, she doesn’t come across as your average cobbler. She is decisive, imperious, a natural-born thoroughbred with her eye on the prize. While The Life Ahead is Loren’s first feature film in a decade, she bridles at the notion that it might be described as a comeback, or a curtain call. She says acting is her life, is all that she knows, and that therefore she sees no particular reason to quit. “Sophia for ever,” she says with a smile.
I ask if she has ever felt lost, or beset by self-doubt, and she considers the question for all of two seconds. “Yes, well, maybe sometimes. But then I say to myself: ‘Shut up. Be strong. Just keep going and try. Sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you win.’ I made some mistakes,” she shrugs. “But still I won.”