Sophia Loren has made more than 90 films since her first uncredited role in 1950. As one of the last remaining links to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the statuesque beauty could easily retire and bask in the laurels and post-career honors that would come her way.
But what has made Loren one of the greatest movie stars of all time isn’t just her astonishing beauty, her graceful bella figura or her easily underrated gifts as a serious actress. It’s a work ethic that can be traced to her roots as the child of an unwed mother, coming of age amid the poverty and pervasive anxieties of World War II-era Naples.
So it’s both amazing and completely unremarkable that Loren has a new movie coming out: “The Life Ahead,” adapted by her son Edoardo Ponti from the novel “The Life Before Us,” by French author Romain Gary. (The two have worked together before, on the feature drama “Between Strangers” and the Jean Cocteau adaptation “Human Voice.”)
Loren says she recognized the book’s cinematic potential and immediately contacted her son, who wasn’t familiar with the title. “I said, ‘Read it, because there’s a story there that maybe, who knows, we could do together,’ ” Loren recalled during a Zoom interview for the Middleburg Film Festival in October, just a week and a half after celebrating her 86th birthday. “ ‘Because it’s a wonderful story and a wonderful character that I think maybe I could be quite good with.’ ”
The fact that she’s still in the hunt for juicy roles should surprise no one, Loren insists. “Of course, if you’re an actress, you always care about looking for stories, because that’s your work,” she says with a shrug. “And if you find a good story, you just follow it, always [hoping] that nobody else is going to catch it. And if they don’t, it’s free for you to be able to do it.”
That shrewdness and competitive spirit help explain Loren’s impressive longevity in a generally fickle business that’s even harder on women who dare to get any older than 40. And her instincts were characteristically on point when it came to “The Life Ahead,” in which Loren plays Madame Rosa, a former prostitute in the coastal city of Bari, Italy, who has become a caretaker for her successors’ kids.
When a scrappy young boy named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) comes into her life, the two form a bond forged by shared trauma and the will to survive: he as a Muslim immigrant, she as a former prisoner in Auschwitz. (Gary’s novel was adapted in 1977 as “Madame Rosa,” starring Simone Signoret.)
“The Life Ahead,” which begins streaming on Netflix on Nov. 13, “is a very good story for me because it has all the things a woman is looking for,” Loren explains. “A house to live [in], children to take care of and, God [willing], to find the right time to be able to do all the things you can do for others.” Although the book was published in the 1970s, she adds, Gary’s themes — immigration, tolerance, overcoming tribal chauvinism and cultivating mutual understanding — have proved to be not just timeless but urgently relevant. “Along with Edoardo, I thought it was quite possible to do a film that would be very, very interesting in this moment,” Loren says.
As Madame Rosa, Loren wears a trailing gray wig and a perpetual scowl, downplaying the natural beauty that made her famous and manages to startle to this day. Last year, at the pre-Oscar Governors Awards, where she helped honor the director Lina Wertmuller, she electrified a roomful of jaded Hollywood insiders just by standing before them in all her regal, still-glamorous glory. “I don’t like the ‘still,’ ” she says, waiting a beat before adding, “No, I’m joking. It’s fine. Life goes on for everybody, I’m not the only one.”
In the production notes for “The Life Ahead,” Loren mentions that Madame Rosa reminded her of her own mother; asked about the association now, she grows contemplative. “My mother was one of the most beautiful women alive,” she says, “and she looked exactly like Greta Garbo. . . . She had blonde hair, she had the same makeup as Greta Garbo, and people were around her asking for autographs. I was fed up with this because she was not Greta Garbo, and I was trying to tell her that what she was doing was not fair . . . but she wouldn’t listen to me. I was 10 years old, and I was ashamed of my mother being looked at by so many people.”
Today, she wonders why she didn’t just go along with the fantasy. “Why not? Why not?” she wonders aloud. “Now I understand. Too late. Too late.”
It was Rita Hayworth — not Garbo or her own mother’s desires — who inspired Loren to become an actress. Growing up in Pozzuoli, just west of Naples, she saw “Gilda” in the little local theater and began to dream. “I always had a wonderful time looking at the houses and the dancers and everything that a little kid looks at when she doesn’t have a lot to think about when she’s at home,” Loren recalls. “You have to [remember] also that we were in a period of war, and many times, we never slept at night because of the bombing. It was a very hard life we had. The only thing . . . I thought [would be] easy to do was to be an actress, not knowing how hard it was.”
And it was Vittorio De Sica who helped her evolve from a teenage beauty queen to a great actress. While competing in a local contest, Loren had caught the eye of the producer Carlo Ponti, whom she later married. After appearing in a number of forgettable films, she met with De Sica, who was casting the 1954 anthology film “The Gold of Naples.” He cast her as an adulterous pizza seller.
“I came from the same town where he was born,” she recalls, “so he was really attached to my Neapolitan slang.” She calls De Sica “the father I never had,” adding that he taught her to ignore the camera and trust him to find her performance. “If I know something about acting, it’s not because of a school of acting, it’s because he taught me so many things,” Loren says fondly. “Every day on the set was a lesson.”
Loren and De Sica made more films together, including 1960’s “Two Women,” for which she won an Oscar. (She didn’t think she would win, so she was in Rome when her “Houseboat” co-star and onetime love interest Cary Grant called at 6 a.m. to give her the news. “I almost fainted,” she recalls.) In many ways, “The Life Ahead” brings Loren’s career full circle, once again casting her in a story animated by De Sica’s singular brand of humanism and compassion.
According to the website IMDb, it also marks Loren’s 98th screen credit, inviting the inevitable question: Is she busy finding two more scripts to make it an even 100? “I don’t know, it depends on the stories,” she says. “Maybe 110.”