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Sophia Loren: ‘Little by little, you see the light at the end of the tunnel’

In an exclusive interview with The Big Issue, screen icon Sophia Loren explains how her role in The Life Ahead – her first in over a decade – brings together her past and her politics to point towards a more hopeful future
Sophia Loren in The LIfe Ahead

The Life Ahead, Sophia Loren’s first film in more than a decade, arrives at a time when the life ahead of us all has never been more uncertain.

“I grew up during the Second World War, the world was very uncertain then, believe me,” she points out.

Now 86, the screen icon plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor who runs de facto day care for the children of prostitutes in the southern Italian city of Bari, and is starting to suffer from the creep of dementia.

As remarkable a role as it is, Madame Rosa is typical of Loren’s most memorable characters who always had as much grit as glamour – pride and passion simmering just below the surface ready to erupt.

Take Cesira in Two Women, a single mother trying to protect her daughter from the horrors of the war, for which Loren won an Oscar 59 years ago – the first Academy Award ever given for a performance in a foreign-language film – beating Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Six decades apart, Cesira and Madame Rosa share the same DNA, both rooted in Loren’s own upbringing.

From the back streets of Naples…

Sophia Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone in Rome in 1934. Her mother Romilda left destitute after her father effectively disowned them. They moved to Pozzuoli, a poor suburb of Naples, where the harbour was targeted by Allied bombing. During one raid Loren was struck by shrapnel that left a scar on her chin.

From the back streets of Naples to the highest heights of Hollywood’s golden age to her current home in Geneva, Loren believes the hardship of her childhood helped more than hindered.

Sophia Loren with Marcello Mastroianni, seen here together in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Sophia Loren made a dozen films with Marcello Mastroianni, seen here together in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

“It is who I am, it made me who I am,” Loren tells The Big Issue. “It was extremely tough and painful but I wouldn’t trade it for anything because it made me appreciate life so much more and it gave me this drive that helped me throughout my life.”

Are children resilient in a way that adults are not?

“Children are more resilient and resourceful than adults because they live in the present,” she says. “They are not encumbered by the weight of the past or the future, they live in the now and that allows them to tackle problems in a very different way, maybe in a more honest way.

“They are also more open than adults and that openness allows them to get out of their own heads and solve problems sometimes more readily despite the fact that they sometimes might lack experience or perspective.”

So looking back, when you were growing up during the war, was it easier to be a child than it would have been to be a parent?

“It was impossibly difficult to be both,” Loren says. “War is the great equaliser. Whether young or old, a parent or a child, the hunger is the same, the fear is the same, the insecurities are the same.

“As a young girl I felt as much responsible for my mother and sister as they did for me.”

When you play a character, their hopes and dreams become your own but also their problems and pains.

Part of the reason Loren decided to make The Life Ahead were the aspects of her mother that she spotted in the script.

“I was immediately struck by how certain aspects of Madame Rosa’s character reminded me of my own mother,” she explains. “Just like Madame Rosa, my mother had this combination of resilience and fragility, of moments of high drama but always seen through the lens of irony.

“She was also rather tough and irreverent on the outside, but quite a softy in the inside. I miss her every day.”

Does embodying a character who reminded you so much of your mother give you fresh insight into her?

“When you play a character, their hopes and dreams become your own but also their problems and pains. Every character helps you grow as a person, as a human being but also as an active member of this global community we live in.”

In the most family-centred of societies, The Life Ahead re-examines what family means. At the film’s heart is the relationship between Madame Rosa and Momo, a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan. Though the characters could not be any more different – and the same can be said for the cinema legend cast opposite first-time actor Ibrahima Gueye – they discover they have much in common. Both are defined by loss and suffering. More importantly, both are survivors.

As societies around the world grow increasingly suspicious and hostile to outsiders, Loren knows what the consequences are for young people.

“The less we are loved, the less we know how to love. The less we are recipients of compassion and empathy, the less we know how to show it to others,” she says.

“It is a vicious cycle that needs to be disrupted. We get back from society what we put into it. Like in a marriage.”

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The big immigration issue

The Life Ahead is adapted from a book by French author Romain Gary. Written in the 1970s, its themes of intolerance, discrimination and who does and doesn’t belong in society are timely and universal.

“This is not an Italian problem or a French problem or a European problem, this is a global problem that requires all hands on deck to tackle,” says the film’s director Edoardo Ponti, one of Loren’s two sons with her late husband, the prolific producer Carlo Ponti.

Sophia Loren and Eduardo Ponti
Greta de Lazzaris : Netflix
Sophia Loren and her son Eduardo Ponti, who directed The Life Ahead

Ponti continues: “The issue of immigration has been used by all governments to polarise people, power-grab and raise money on the backs of people’s fears and prejudices.

“Right now, I am afraid, it is more lucrative and politically advantageous for political parties around the globe not to solve the issue, it’s red meat for the base.”

That is why, he says, humanising the stories of people like Momo is so important: “Empathy begins when you can start seeing life through the eyes of another person, in this case a 12-year-old immigrant Senegalese boy. And when you do that, all of a sudden, issues that seem so impossible to solve become much clearer. You are motivated by the fundamental desire to help people. When that happens, a lot of the red tape gets cut out of the equation.”

If this pairing represents the Italy of 2021 then we should all be so lucky!

Ibrahima Gueye, Sophia Loren
Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren in The Life Ahead

Momo came to Italy when he was three, so he is as Italian as anybody else.

“Of course,” Ponti agrees. “Home is home. This is the place he knows, he calls home, this is where he belongs.

In this climate then, is pairing him with the ultimate icon of Italian cinema – if not the ultimate icon of Italy – a political statement in itself? Together do they represent Italy in 2021?

“When I work with my mother, I don’t want to present her to the world as the icon they know but more like the authentic, down-to-earth woman who raised me,” Ponti explains.

“Pairing Ibra and my mother together was not a political statement, it was a statement from the heart – and if this pairing represents the Italy of 2021 then we should all be so lucky!”

Once the heart is touched, it is hard to look away from a problem

Hope from yesterday for today and tomorrow

As we move into awards season, The Life Ahead is picking up nominations. There’s buzz that Sophia Loren could be in the running for another Academy Award. You can watch Burt Lancaster announce Loren’s Oscar win 59 years ago below.

However, it’s not awards that motivates Loren, rather the power of storytelling itself.

“Once the heart is touched, it is hard to look away from a problem,” she says. “Your heart nudges you again and again to do something about it, roll up your sleeves and get involved in some way.”

That’s a message that will serve us well in the uncertain days ahead. What was it, in the uncertain days of the Second World War that allowed the light to start shining though?

“Little by little, you see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Loren says. “In the beginning, it’s not a light, it’s a tiny little ember, then the ember turns into a glow and the glow grows into a light.

“That light is the hope within you that things will get better, that there will be once again balance in the world and the more you believe it, the more you can manifest it.”

The Life Ahead is available to stream on Netflix

This interview appears in the current edition of The Big Issue, available from select retailers, ordered via our online shop or downloaded through The Big Issue app