Sophia Loren is having a a full-circle moment.
In Netflix’s Italian-language The Life Ahead (out Nov. 13), she portrays a Holocaust survivor, Madame Rosa, who takes in a Senagalese immigrant (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye). The legendary actress tread similar in her role as a mother in war-torn Rome in 1961’s Two Women, which was produced by her late husband, Carlo Ponti — and for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Now, nearly 60 years later, she’s working with another Ponti, director Edoardo, their son. This marks their third project and second feature film together. “I really love working with my son because because we know each other very well,” Loren tells EW, calling from her home in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’s been holed up since the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I love his way of directing me.”
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At 86, Loren is jovial, the wry, knowing sense of humor that punctuated some of her most famous work still abundant. She rose to fame in America because of her bombshell looks, but quickly proved her staying power with emotionally nuanced roles. Loren was, after all, the first actor to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance. Her vibrancy, essential to her stardom, comes through over the phone. A warm laugh, lust for living, and keen hunger for conversation float over the line with the earthy buoyancy that helped build an actress into a legend.
The Life Ahead is her first live action feature film in over a decade, but Loren never intended to stay away this long. “It just happened,” she says. “I wanted to be inspired and challenged. I didn't know any films that I wanted to do right away.” What makes a film the right fit for her after all these years in the business? “If you choose the things that you think you can do best, you always save yourself in a way, because you put on the screen an image of yourself, which is truthful,” she notes. “This is what people like: truth.”
Truth is what she’s still pursuing. It’s something she learned from Two Women director Vittorio de Sica. “I was playing a mother of a child of 13 or 14. He taught me so many things, [like] attitude and [to keep things simple],” she explains. “Because otherwise, if you start to do difficult things, then it becomes something like a machine. You have to look normal. You have to look like what you really are.” He also taught her the value of investing in a good script. “If you fall in love with the story and you know what the situations are, it's not easy,” she adds. “But you can go for it and know that you are going to make it.”
The film pairs her with first-time actor Gueye, who Loren praises. “He was a great partner [and] very in touch with his emotions. I think he will have a great future in this profession, if he chooses it,” she reflects. “For his first thing on the screen, he was never upset about the camera, upset about the people around. He just did what he had to do.” The two share the bulk of the screen time with Gueye’s Momo struggling to find his place in contemporary Italy, as he initially chafes against the expectations of Madame Rosa’s home. Rosa is a protector of lost souls, also caring for another undocumented boy, as well as a transgender sex worker and her child.
But while this scenario is far from Loren’s life now, the role of a Holocaust survivor offered a return to Loren’s own memories, growing up near Naples during the war. “I was a little girl, but the sound and the experiences of the war never, never leave you,” she says. “Even if 100 years go by, it's always there. When you hear something on television about the war, you jump. I [tapped] into my own experiences during the war and [found] Madame Rosa's truth and honesty by uncovering my own.”
Loren consistently employed that in scenes where Rosa is haunted by her past, including one where she’s caught in a trance during a storm. She studied videos of people experiencing similar fugue states, trying to perfect her face and how it reflects what’s happening in one’s brain. To film the moment, she sat on a rooftop in pouring rain for three hours. “My son didn’t want me to blink, which was tough because of the rain that was falling all over my eyes,” she jokes. “He likes me to suffer.” But she credits the performance to him and how his innate knowledge of her forces her to be more honest. “I’d work with him even if he wasn’t my son,” she reflects. “I saw the scene and I couldn't believe myself.”
It’s this moment, which Loren says she became like a statue to master, and her final scene in the film that are earning her early Oscar buzz. After nearly 70 years of making movies, Loren has distilled these emotionally taxing moments to a simple maxim. “You have to feel the moment and know yourself,” she says. “When the moment is coming, just go. Just go. Don’t think about anything else but what you have to do."
Loren received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1991, but this is the first time she’s been part of the competitive conversation since 1965’s Marriage Italian Style. But don’t start thinking this is her swan song. “I love cinema so much. I want to keep doing it forever,” she concludes. “I know it’s difficult to find good stories, but sometimes I fall in love with the right ones. I intend to make movies forever.”
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