Sophia Loren on Her Triumphant Return to Movies With Netflix’s ‘The Life Ahead’

Six years ago, Sophia Loren emerged from retirement to film Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice” — her version of the one-act play that Tilda Swinton and Pedro Almodóvar recently adapted during lockdown, and which Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman had each tackled decades before. In the 25-minute project, which was directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, Loren plays a woman alone but for her housekeeper in an Italian villa, speaking to the man she once loved via a shaky phone connection.

“The only thing left between us is this telephone wire,” Loren says in the film, her voice torn.

In a way, that short feels like a forecast of Loren’s life today, as the coronavirus has forced so many into isolation — including the still vibrant acting legend, who laughs easily and often over the course of a career-spanning 90-minute phone call. The Italian star, the first person from any country to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance, lives in Geneva, far removed from her two U.S.-based sons, composer Carlo Ponti Jr. and film director Edoardo, and her four grandchildren.

Loren and her family speak nearly every day, but it’s difficult for the actor, who put her career aside at a certain point to have more time with her kids and their kids, to be cut off like this. What good fortune then that she was able to shoot a feature — her first since playing a small part in the 2009 musical “Nine” — with Edoardo Ponti before COVID-19 made it impossible for her to travel.

“I always had two books on my proverbial nightstand to do with my mother,” Ponti explains on a separate call. “One was ‘The Human Voice,’ which we did five years ago, and the other was Romain Gary,” which inspired their latest collaboration, “The Life Ahead,” a film that puts the 86-year-old actor in the Oscar conversation once again.

Acquired by Netflix, “The Life Ahead” is a contemporary adaptation of “La vie devant soi,” a novel Gary published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar about a Holocaust survivor, Madame Rosa, who offers day care for the children of local prostitutes. Though already overwhelmed by her brood, she takes in another misfit, a young immigrant named Momo (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), after the boy snatches her sack in the market. Despite the vast difference in age and culture, the two bond in an extraordinary way, revealing dimensions of Madame Rosa’s past as well as her slow descent into dementia.

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Sophia Loren and Ibrahima Gueye in Netflix’s “The Life Ahead”

Winner of French literature’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, “La vie devant soi” was previously adapted for the screen in 1977, as “Madame Rosa,” with Simone Signoret in the title role. That sentimental telling won the Oscars’ foreign-language film prize over what is arguably Loren’s best performance, opposite Marcello Mastroianni in Ettore Scola’s “A Special Day.” The two actors made 12 films together, and that one is their most surprising, a subtle two-hander that has both playing against type.

Loren describes a favorite scene set on the roof in “A Special Day” — where her character, a housewife, folds laundry while revealing her feelings for her soft-spoken neighbor, played by Mastroianni — as one of her favorite moments acting with him, the memory of which made for a special day during the production of “The Life Ahead.”

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Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in “A Special Day,” 1977.

“When Edoardo set one of the pivotal scenes on the rooftop of Madame Rosa’s building, it was the first time I had been on a rooftop shooting a scene in a very long time, and I was overwhelmed with a flood of memories and emotions,” Loren recalls.

“I was very anxious that day, and not only because we were revealing the first symptoms of Madame Rosa’s condition. Even though more than 40 years had passed between scenes, my passion for storytelling and films was intact,” she says. Loren was comforted by “the butterflies in my belly, and by my side, I had a director in my son whom I loved and trusted deeply. That day I felt truly blessed.”

Ponti first worked with his mother when he was just 11 years old, playing a blind child in the 1984 film “Aurora.”

“He was very difficult with me!” laughs Loren, thinking back to how bossy he was on set, instructing her how to drive the car and so forth. “He was speaking like he was a grown-up. He wanted to teach me how to act, and I was his mother!”

Ponti remembers it slightly differently. “As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in storytelling,” says the director, who was a year older than his “The Life Ahead” lead actor, Gueye, at the time. “I understood that in order to be a director, I should know how it feels to be in front of the camera. Once you’ve done that, you know how to speak to actors. You understand what’s useful and what’s completely unnecessary.”

Three decades passed between “Aurora” and “The Human Voice,” which Ponti coaxed his mother into making with him. Both that and “The Life Ahead” were “common dreams,” he says, and Loren concurs.

“I don’t want to work for stories that I don’t feel because I wouldn’t know how to do it,” says the actor, who shifted her attention to her family when compelling roles stopped coming. “I really gave myself to my children completely, and it was wonderful, because I spent all my time with the two families [Carlo’s and Edoardo’s] in America, without working, just being with them all the time.”

“Wonderful” is a word Loren uses often — in describing her glory days, acting opposite leading men like Mastroianni and Cary Grant, or the roles she remembers best, like the young mother she plays in “Two Women.” It surfaces so often, in fact, one wonders whether the star has purged the tough times from her memory entirely.

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Sophia Loren in “The Two Women,” 1960.

Certainly, in retrospect, hers has been a blessed career. She began in Italy as a teenager, working her way up at Cinecittà Studios in Rome from roles as an extra — such as the slave girl in creaky 1951 sword-and-sandal epic “Quo Vadis” — to starring in films for Vittorio De Sica, and on to Hollywood. But Loren insists, “My life was not easy at all.”

Born under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, Loren was 6 when war broke out, and Naples — just east of her hometown of Pozzuoli — was a regular target of Allied air raids. Scrambling for cover in bomb shelters became a kind of routine, and during one attack, she was struck by a piece of shrapnel, leaving a small scar on her chin.

“During the war in Pozzuoli, I would take refuge in movie houses and be immersed in all these amazing Hollywood films and daydream about all the Hollywood stars,” Loren says.

Echoes of this traumatic period reverberate throughout her filmography: in the resourceful desperation of a wartime mother trying to protect her daughter in “Two Women,” in the blind allegiance an average housewife shows Mussolini in “A Special Day,” in the bombing of the brothel where the shell-shocked prostitute hides at the outset of “Marriage Italian Style.”

As a girl in Pozzuoli, the future Ms. Loren went by Sofia Scicolone, which was a source of some controversy in the conservative Catholic town, since the surname belonged to Sofia’s father, who had refused to marry her mother, Romilda Villani, leaving the family to fend for itself. “It was very difficult to go to school because people were kidding that I had no father,” she remembers.

Loren’s mother bore a remarkable resemblance to Greta Garbo. She dyed her hair blond and took her daughter to see Garbo’s movies. “Sometimes she was so much like Greta Garbo that people were stopping in the street just to have an autograph. But this was not something that I was looking for. When these kinds of things happen when you are very young, you are ashamed,” Loren explains. She would watch her mother bask in the attention and think to herself, “She’s nobody.”

Villani may have looked like a screen icon, but she had no interest in acting and didn’t understand her daughter’s obsession with movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr. “She was not at my side to really give me what I needed,” Loren recalls. “I wanted to be on the screen. If I hadn’t become an actress, I think I would have died.”

Around the age of 14 or 15, Loren pressured her mother to move the family to Rome, hoping to reconnect with her absent father. There she hustled to find a way into the film industry in earnest. Competing in beauty contests, she landed opportunities to appear in fotoromanzi — pulp photo-novel magazines such as Sogno, in which beautiful models acted out brief melodramas through still photographs. It was good practice for a screen career, and a chance to build awareness with audiences.

During this time the future Sophia Loren received her first professional name change, to Sofia Lazzaro. It was also then, at age 16, that she met producer Carlo Ponti, 22 years her senior, whom she would later marry. But that love story was still a long way off, and Loren says Ponti was always respectful.

Of the #MeToo movement that has shed light on a culture of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, she says, “These things happened to others but not to me.” In Loren’s case, Ponti spotted her at a beauty contest, asked to meet her for drinks and suggested that she take a screen test.

In her 2014 memoir, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” (named after De Sica’s popular anthology film in which she stole the show, delivering a now-famous striptease for Mastroianni that director Robert Altman cheekily re-created in “Prêt-à-Porter”), Loren refers to the many compromises other Italian actors made to launch their careers. She recalls a conversation where Ponti hinted that she should do something to soften her “dominant profile.”

Loren shot down the idea.

“I’ve been working without you knowing about it with this nose, which I’m never going to change,” she told him, feigning offense at the subject all these years later. “My nose is going to stay there forever. I like it. It has a lot of personality.”

Today, it’s impossible to imagine Loren with any face other than the one the world knows: soft and sensual from the front, sharper in profile, but resolute from any angle. Early on, cameramen had to adapt their techniques to shoot her, adjusting the lighting so as not to create unflattering shadows — yet Loren went on to become one of the 20th century’s most recognizable beauty icons. When she applied eyeliner to extend the natural shape of her lids, the whole world copied her signature cat eyes.

“I think what has made her attractive,” Edoardo Ponti observes, “is how comfortable she is with who she is, not only the parts that are undeniably universally beautiful. She owns all of herself.”

Her name, on the other hand, was something Sofia Scicolone was willing to change, and she landed on Sophia Loren at the suggestion of Italian producer Goffredo Lombardo, with whom she worked on “Africa Under the Seas” in 1953.

As Loren describes it, “He was working with an actress from Holland, Märta Torén, who was very well known. He said, ‘Well, I have to give you a name because people have to know who you are,’” so he took Torén’s last name and changed the first letter, anglicizing Sofia’s first name in the process. “So from then on, I was called Sophia Loren,” she says. “And that’s who I am. I am Sophia Loren. It was very normal. They were looking for a name, and they gave me Sophia Loren,” she laughs, adding, “Better than nothing.”

The following year, after a series of small roles, Loren landed her big break in “The Gold of Naples,” produced by Ponti and directed by actor-turned-neorealist-auteur De Sica. Like Loren, the filmmaker had grown up in the region, and he cast her as a pizza girl who turns heads wherever she goes.

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Sophia Loren and Alberto Farnese in “The Gold of Naples,” 1954.

“That was a great role for me,” beams Loren, still amazed at a part that “gave me the chance to be myself at 18, to be Neapolitan for the Neapolitan people. That was my luck, because when the film came out, I really burst.

I started to ask for better roles, and I was becoming known by the public in the streets.”

De Sica directed Loren in six more films, acting alongside her in several more, and she credits him with giving her confidence as a performer. “De Sica was the one who really made it happen for me,” she says.

That same year, 1954, sparked another fruitful partnership when Loren was cast opposite Mastroianni, who would become her most steady co-star.

“From the very first film we made together, ‘Too Bad She’s Bad,’ we hit it off, Marcello and me. Our chemistry worked because we made each other laugh. He was so funny,” says Loren, who still carries a souvenir of the film in her agenda.

“If I have a day where I am a little down, I only have to think of the face of Marcello when Vittorio De Sica told him during the shooting of ‘Marriage Italian Style’ that the 10-page scene we were shooting that day would be done in a oner, which meant he needed to know all 10 pages of dialogue without cuts — like in a play. He looked terrified!” says Loren, who herself errs on the side of over-preparation.

But not Mastroianni. “Learning lines was not his thing, and he started to panic,” she recalls. “Of course, he ended up doing a superb job, but I will never forget the terror in his face as he rushed back into his trailer to study.

“I miss Marcello every day. He was a great actor but most of all a great friend.”

Based in Rome in the late 1950s, Loren managed to act in a handful of American movies. Directors would come to shoot overseas and cast her, as Henry Hathaway did for desert adventure “Legend of the Lost” with John Wayne.

“When I was very well known in Italy, America called the production [company] asking for my name, saying maybe they had a role for me in a picture with Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, many good American actors,” explains Loren, who took the leap and moved to Los Angeles in 1957.

Looking back, Loren says she was star-struck in the proximity of so many of the talents who had inspired her. “I had loved and admired all these actors on the screen for so many years, seeing them in flesh and blood was so strange, like they had walked out from the screen into this living room,” she says. “What amazed me the most was how nice and generous they were with me. I was a foreigner, I didn’t speak English very well, but they immediately made me feel at ease.”

Her first Hollywood project following her move, “The Pride and the Passion,” actually shot in Spain and went south when Frank Sinatra walked off the picture. But Loren clicked with the film’s star, Cary Grant — although she’s more coy about the connection now than she was in her memoir, in which she describes turning down his offer to marry her after the production wrapped.

Still, Grant proved to be a good friend and went above and beyond to protect her from being pigeonholed as a sex symbol, going as far as to challenge a sketch that cartoonist Al Hirschfeld had made for the film that featured Loren in a plunging neckline, standing beside a phallic cannon.

Loren landed a five-picture deal with Paramount, which reunited her with Grant a few years later on “Houseboat,” a romantic comedy whose final wedding scene was shot just days after Loren and Ponti were married by proxy in Mexico.

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Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in “Houseboat,” 1958.

“I was aware of how painful it was for him to play this scene with me,” she’s quoted as saying in the book “Evenings With Cary Grant,” which makes it especially poignant that the actor was the one to deliver the news of her Oscar win for “Two Women” in 1962.

Loren was only the second actor nominated for a non-English-language speaking role, after Greek star Melina Mercouri (“Never on Sunday”), and the first to win. She did not attend the ceremony but remained in Italy, going to bed that night convinced she would lose to Audrey Hepburn (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) or Natalie Wood (“Splendor in the Grass”).

“At 6 in the morning, the phone rings. I said to my husband, ‘Who is calling at this hour?’” she remembers. She picked up, “and Cary was there, and he said, ‘You won!’ I was so moved. I really, really didn’t expect anything like that. I hung up right away because I thought I was going to faint.”

Loren would continue to alternate English- language roles with Italian movies for the rest of her career, working closely with Ponti to create opportunities where she could express herself most effectively. “Carlo was a great producer,” she says. “He invented the Italian cinema in America. For years, we did films in Italy, but they never went to America. Then with Carlo, they went to America because he had found other producers in America.”

There had been Italian film stars before Loren, of course. Anna Magnani was “the best Italian actress,” in Loren’s estimation, and Gina Lollobrigida paved the way for the Italian sex symbol several years before. But none broke through to the international market as Loren did — for which she was celebrated with an honorary Oscar in 1991.

Loren’s reputation allowed her to work with a “fairy tale” roster of first-class directors: Michael Curtiz (“A Breath of Scandal”), Carol Reed (“The Key”), Anthony Mann (“El Cid”), Stanley Donen (“Arabesque”), Lina Wertmüller (“Blood Feud”) and the one she remembers most fondly, Charlie Chaplin.

“He was at the end of his career, and we all knew it was his last picture,” Loren says of 1967’s “A Countess From Hong Kong,” which paired her with the tortured but brilliant Marlon Brando, whom she euphemistically describes as being “a little difficult.” Still, she was so charmed by Chaplin, who performed all the parts for his cast so they could see how he envisioned them, that “we all did the best we could to give him what we had inside. He was a wonderful person.”

Now, as her career enters its eighth decade, Loren is far more selective about her projects. On that front, her son has a distinct advantage: He can pitch his mom on a role as special as Madame Rosa. “I think right now, if she were to go in front of the camera again — which she would be happy to do — it would have to be a role that she can’t pass up, or a director she wants to work with,” Ponti says.

According to Loren, “When you’re very young, you have to accept everything that comes. I love to work, as long as it’s something I really care about. Otherwise, to work just to work, no.”

With “The Life Ahead,” the material touched Loren on an emotional level. True to the novel, this latest adaptation is told from young Momo’s point of view, calling for a kind of subtlety that appealed to the passionate performer, with her extroverted Neapolitan personality — which is to say, “The Life Ahead” reveals a side of Loren most audiences haven’t seen.

All those years ago, when the two were making “Aurora” together, Ponti couldn’t stop himself from correcting Loren’s instincts. Now he says, “One of the great things about my mother, when she comes on set, she’s 1,000% prepared.” She knows her lines, she has figured out the character, and she’s ready to shoot. “That preparation allows her to relax and let go of everything in front of the camera. At 11, maybe I was a bit less prepared.”

At that age, Ponti knew he wanted to be a director, sure as his mother had sensed her own destiny. Luck may have played some part, but Loren believes there was never any other option for her.

“If you are convinced of what you want to be, there isn’t anything that can destroy it inside of you. It’s like a fever. It’s the only thing you think about,” she says, adding, “It’s incredible. When I speak about these things, I feel like I did it yesterday. I feel very, very young.”

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