It has been 11 years since Sophia Loren, the great Italian star and one of the only surviving icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, last graced the screen. And longer still since she last took a leading role. After her Oscar-winning heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, Loren turned to the only passion that could match her love for cinema—motherhood—and focused her attention on raising first her two sons, Carlo, a classical music conductor, and Edoardo Ponti, a filmmaker, and then her grandchildren. The actress, whose co-stars have included Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Marcello Mastroianni, to name only a few, had never retired, and her love for performance never dimmed; simply, her priorities changed.
It took her son, Edoardo, to coax her back to the screen this season for The Life Ahead, a new adaptation of Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us, and toward a performance that is sure to remind everyone of the power of Sophia Loren. Ponti’s adaptation relocates the novel to Bari, not far from Naples in Southern Italy where Loren grew up, and reimagines the book’s central character Madame Rosa as a Neapolitan woman who meets a Senegalese orphan boy named Momo. A Holocaust survivor and former prostitute, Madame Rosa’s well of emotion is deep, but her patience is not to be tested, and though she and Momo start off at odds, their relationship becomes transformational for the pair of them.
Sitting together in the family home in Geneva, Loren and Ponti reflect not only on their collaboration for The Life Ahead, and the deft way Ponti’s reimagining of the setting offers a window on the migrant crisis raging in Southern Italy, but also on Loren’s legacy, and their entire history together, as mother and son, actress and director.
DEADLINE: Sophia, your career started when you were just 15. What did acting mean to you back then?
SOPHIA LOREN: In my life at the time, there was nothing better to think about than what I was living with my mother and my sister. But when I met this friend of mine, Vittorio De Sica, on set, that was what really inflamed my wanting to be an actress. Wanting to just follow the desire to be able to be on a set and dream about wonderful stories in my life. Finding the things that I never saw and never did live, because my early life was marked by war. My childhood was a very difficult thing to live; very difficult.
DEADLINE: Was acting an escape, then, from that life?
LOREN: It wasn’t an escape, but at the moment, I felt like it was an escape. It was something I wanted to do badly, because then I would be surrounded by wonderful people and wonderful things in my life, which I never had because of the war. My family was a wonderful family, and they loved us a lot, me and my sister, but it was a very difficult life during the war.
DEADLINE: What you subsequently found was a career path that you, still today, express so much love for. Would you say that you found your calling?
LOREN: Acting was what I was able to do, I was going to do, I really was dreaming to do. If you dream about something, maybe sometimes you think you won’t get it, but it’s always in your mind. There was never a day I didn’t want to be on the screen, didn’t want to be an actress, and didn’t want to be with the people that would talk to you about the paradise you might live while you’re doing the picture. Life on set was something I never had before.
EDOARDO PONTI: My mother’s so passionate about her work, truly. She approaches every movie like it was her very first. There’s not one jaded bone in her body. Not one moment where she doesn’t tackle a scene with the same excitement as if it was the first time she acted. And I think that’s why people connect so deeply with her work. She doesn’t take shortcuts. She handles the scene with the same depth, enthusiasm and passion as if it were her first time, despite the fact that it’s 71 years that she’s been doing this.
LOREN: Each time is the first time… Something new that is happening inside of you with every character. That was the big thing that opened my eyes to being an actress, was being involved with so many characters. So many wonderful worlds to live in. It was paradise. And it still is because it’s something that comes from inside; it grows within you each time you have a new opportunity, and new things to explore.
DEADLINE: Edoardo, you grew up with two of Italy’s most iconic figures of cinema; your father was the renowned producer Carlo Ponti. Was there a moment when you came to realize that your mother and father were these beloved characters, or did that happen gradually?
PONTI: When you’re born into this reality, you never really don’t realize it, but you grow into it. There’s a slow understanding of what it is that you’re living, or what your family’s living. Both my mother and my father have contributed greatly to an industry, and for us it happened to be the industry of filmmaking. But it’s interesting, because my parents never brought the spotlight of their success into our home. It was never about that glamor. It was never about Hollywood, or dinner parties, or premieres. It was never about those things.
So, we lived quite sheltered lives in that way, and around our dinner table we talked more about stories and craft than about Hollywood. We didn’t talk about the celebrity trappings, say, of this kind of success that my parents had. Even though I realized quite early on that my parents were successful in this craft, the repercussions of knowing that weren’t really about the glamor but rather the craft of storytelling.
DEADLINE: Was that where your interest in filmmaking came from?
PONTI: It was, but it was also always there. My brother is an orchestra conductor and a concert pianist. When he was around eight years old, he would practice piano in the living room. I remember being four years old, and as he was playing on his piano I was on the ground, using his music to score my little Lego figurines. I remember I would walk into my room, and if I didn’t like the lighting scheme, I would change it to suit the atmosphere. So, it’s never not been this for me. It’s always been this.
At five or six, we got our first video player; not VHS but Betamax. I would watch endless movies. The same movie 10 times over. You can’t manufacture a passion like this; you either have the passion or you don’t. And if you have the passion, then you’re willing to commit your entire life to it without thinking about a plan B. Plan A is the one, and then if it doesn’t happen, then… well, it’s a disaster [laughs].
LOREN: I knew it and I felt it with Edoardo from very early on. We would be watching television and he’d be talking about the story, and how the scene was edited, and what he’d change about it, what he didn’t like. He always had something that was wrong to talk about, and he knew he was the only one who could fix it.
DEADLINE: The Life Ahead is not the first time you’ve worked together. Was that always destined?
PONTI: When you’re a director, you draw from what you know, and from what you love, and obviously in my home I had one of the greatest actors of all time. And I knew my mother, I knew how to speak with her. We have a rapport that I always knew could be very special. You start there; you start from what makes you comfortable as a filmmaker. And what made me comfortable was working with this amazing actress—this amazing woman—who happens to be my mother. We always had a shorthand. And from the very beginning of my life, we’ve also had a chemistry because we’re so similar in our passions. We have a connection.
So, it was very natural for me to combine my passion for telling stories with this rapport I have with my mother. And, especially with The Life Ahead, this desire I have to present my mother in the way that I know her… As Sophia, as mamma, in her most authentic, her most stripped down, and in a way, her most exposed.
I love doing that with her, because of the iconography associated to Sophia Loren. I love to disrupt that. To surround her with these wonderful characters. To have her speak Neapolitan in the deepest sense of what that means. And I think people respond to it because they’re presented with a different version of Sophia Loren than they’re used to. But a more authentic version.
LOREN: Do you want to change that answer?
PONTI: No, I don’t want to change it [laughs].
DEADLINE: Sophia, I saw you looking suspiciously at him.
LOREN: I was waiting for the end of it [laughs]. No, but of course, he’s my son. I’ve known him since he was born.
PONTI: Since before I was born.
LOREN: Even before he was born. It’s something I always look for, because it’s like being at home. You can be open to what you have inside, you don’t have to hide anymore. You can be who you are. With him, I’m always what I am and what I can be, and so this gives me a strength in what I’m playing that I could never have if I was directed by somebody that doesn’t know me so well.
PONTI: What’s also wonderful is that our life together… I’m 47, so it has been a 47-year study of a person that, when we work together, I can take a treasure trove of the experiences over those 47 years with this person and then remind her of certain things, because I know her so well.
Very specific things, like, for example, when my mother’s upset, and wherever she is, whether she’s at a table or in her bedroom, she will start tidying up. So, she’s ranting and she’s tidying up at the same time. These are the things that maybe in a scene I’ll suggest her to do. Because I know this is something she actually does… And she’s embarrassed now I’ve said that.
LOREN: I feel completely nude [laughs]. Edoardo knows everything about me, so even when he sees me dressed up, he sees right through it, you know?
PONTI: The x-ray.
LOREN: It’s an x-ray, yes. I live always with this x-ray turned on me.
PONTI: But how wonderful it is, for a director and for an actor, to have this kind of relationship, because then you can bring those things to the screen. Usually, when a director really starts to get to know an actor well, the movie is over. Here, we start with that. So, we can really start working like that from day one.
LOREN: It’s true. I had that too when I was working with De Sica. He was a wonderful director who had this kind of manner when it came to talking about acting, to talking about the scene that you had to do, and he, too, could really see through you. But not in a manner of being very strong and forceful about it, because he wanted to find a free way to talk about performance, and so it became simple and easy.
DEADLINE: Does that push you further in a performance?
LOREN: No, it’s not even a question of being pushed further; it’s a question of feeling that you have it inside, and then you can just do it and be happy about it. It is something that should come naturally. Otherwise, people can see that you’re faking.
DEADLINE: Madame Rosa was a character you’d yearned to play for years.
LOREN: Oh, right away, as soon as I read the book. It comes from inside you too, this feeling of wanting to be the character you’re reading, and it’s not something you can force. It had been a while where I had not worked on films. And when Edoardo gave me the book to read, right away I realized I was already filming it without filming it. It wasn’t as simple as reading the book. I was imagining what could be done through me as Madame Rosa, and with Edoardo directing. It was a wonderful feeling.
DEADLINE: A moment of revelation?
LOREN: Yes, and there are not many writers that write like Romain Gary.
PONTI: There are certain characters that hit a frequency that aligns itself with my mother’s. So, when I started reading this character, her voice came in immediately. For most directors, they don’t want to hear an actor’s voice in their head when they’re reading, when they’re writing, because then they might not get them. But in this case, when I was hearing my mother’s voice, I thought, Well, at least I know I can get her on the phone. I mean, it was no guarantee she would do the movie, because Sophia Loren didn’t build her success by saying yes to everybody that called. But I knew at least I could get her attention.
With Madame Rosa, there was no question in my mind. This sense of a character that was full of contradictions. She’s soft, but tough. She’s dramatic, but funny. There’s something very poetic about these contradictions, and they not only reminded me of my mother and my mother’s voice, but also of my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Like Madame Rosa, both of them had lived through war. My mother, of course, didn’t go through the Holocaust, but she experienced the Second World War. She tasted what it was to be under the bombs, the hunger, seeing dead bodies in the streets. All these are things that will mark you forever, especially when you see them at such a young age. I felt my mother would be not just the best, but the only person to play this role.
DEADLINE: You changed the setting of the novel from Paris to Bari, in southern Italy. It seems to fit so well, because the notion of Madame Rosa being this woman with just a tremendous well of love, but also a certain sense of a formidable nature, feels like a very Italian thing.
PONTI: What’s amazing about Italian culture is that love is not something you switch on or off. You should not be commended for loving somebody; love is as important as breathing. You don’t pat yourself on the back for it. And this is very much true of Madame Rosa. She loves as naturally as she breathes. It’s not about sentimentality, because she can be brutal with Momo, the boy in the story. But behind her roughness—behind her irreverence—there is true, true love.
LOREN: It was wonderful to find that with Momo. Ibrahima Gueye [who plays Momo] is a wonderful boy who gave me the time and was open and willing to find this relationship inside of him. And it was wonderful to see him experience the making of the film, because he really came to know himself, I think, during the shooting. He’s had a tough life, and he was really in a corner, but now he asks, “What will I do tomorrow?” Tomorrow didn’t have meaning for him before. Now, it can be anything.
PONTI: I think the reason my mother can speak the way she does about Ibra is because she recognizes her own story in elements of his life. When she was growing up, tomorrow meant nothing. She was raised in an era when there was no tomorrow; you had to fight for today. And when she says that Momo was in a corner, she understands what this means in a way that I cannot, because she felt it too at his age. It was so beautiful to watch these two people who are so far apart in terms of generation find this thing that unites them.
We all deserve to have our tomorrow, and I think what makes it so universal is that it is not only Madame Rosa who’s helping and saving Momo, but it’s Momo who’s helping and saving Madame Rosa. It is a true exchange of sensibilities, of strength, of courage, because these two people are both survivors, so they help each other. That’s really what makes it so special. And they both teach each other about love. They both teach each other about strength. They both bring the other to the place where they need to be.
LOREN: Working with him was simplicity itself. It was my idea that we should all live together during the filming, so we did, and Ibra and his family became part of our own family. And this feeling of family and watching him experience this work that he had never done before, it was really wonderful. And it was a wonderful school for him, but for me as well. He was great company for me.
DEADLINE: I hope it won’t be another 10 years before your next film.
LOREN: No, 20 years [laughs]. I don’t know. It depends on life.
DEADLINE: You really need to talk to the man next to you.
LOREN: Yeah, maybe. I’m too accustomed to him.
PONTI: She needs somebody new [laughs].