[10 November 2011]
Has there ever been an actress more beautiful than Sophia Loren? That’s the kind of question which has no answer, but this much is certain: Loren’s beauty is matched by her skill as an actress. Both attributes are on display in The Sophia Loren Award Collection, a 5-disc Blu-Ray set including four of Loren’s films, plus a documentary about one of her frequent collaborators, the director Vittorio De Sica.
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1963) consists of three short films, each set in a different city (Naples, Milan, and Rome) and strata of Italian society, and each featuring Loren and her frequent leading man Marcello Mastroianni (himself no slouch in either the looks or talent departments). In the first story they play a poor couple who finds an unusual way to avoid having their furniture repossessed. In the second they play a wealthy Roman woman and her lover, and in the third a Roman prostitute and one of her clients. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow won the 1965 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and, as in many films of this period, it gives you a nice little travelogue of Italy along with your story.
Boccaccio ‘70 (1962) is also an anthology film, presenting four stories in the bawdy spirit of Boccaccio, each with a different director—Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica—and a different female lead—Marina Solinas, Anita Ekberg, Romy Schneider, and Loren. They’re wonderful little time capsules of Italy in the early ‘60s and offer a look at different aspects of love and lust, from a young woman hiding her pregnancy to keep her job, to an elderly man who becomes upset over a billboard he believes is indecent. In the original screening at Cannes, the first segment was omitted, and it is sometimes omitted in televised screenings, but it is a perfectly fine little film and fits well with the others, suggesting that the main consideration in cutting it was length (the four segments combined run almost 3 ½ hours). Boccaccio ‘70 was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1962 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Sunflower (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1970) demonstrates that Loren could do drama as well as comedy. She and Mastroianni play a young couple who marry in haste during World War II, then are separated when he goes missing while serving in Russia. This story is hardly new, yet it is well-presented, and offers a useful corrective to American movies which present the war as a time of glory on the battlefield and cheery patriotism at home. One scene in particular stands out: Loren, along with many others, meets a troop train with a photograph of her husband, hoping to find someone who knows what happened to him. It’s reminiscent of the scenes in New York City following 9/11, when people posted photos of their loved ones around the World Trade Center site, hoping to find someone who knew their fate. The cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (who also shot Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and one segment of Boccaccio ‘70) is splendid, as is Henry Mancini’s soundtrack; the latter was nominated for an Academy Award.
Marriage, Italian Style (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1964) is a comedy about a successful businessman (Mastroianni) and a prostitute (Loren) who displays an uncommon ingenuity and persistence in getting what she wants. It’s the kind of naughty comedy which could easily remain superficial, but Loren invests her role with real heart while Mastroianni also shows great range in his role. Unfortunately, this print is the worst of any in the collection: the colors have faded badly and the image is full of visual noise. Marriage, Italian Style was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and Loren was also nominated for Best Actress.
Vittorio D. (dir. Mario Canale & Annarosa Morri, 2009) is a straightforward documentary about De Sica which is pretty good if you consider it an extra, but less satisfactory if considered as a stand-alone feature film (in which case it almost screams “made for television”). It includes some priceless clips of De Sica acting and singing (he began his career on the stage and also appeared as actor in many films) along with many talking-head interviews (everyone from Woody Allen and Leonard Maltin to members of the De Sica family) and excerpts from some of De Sica’s films.
One thing is immediately clear from watching any of the four Loren films in this collection: while even married characters in contemporary American movies were still sleeping in single beds, their counterparts in Italian movies were visibly enjoying their sexuality onscreen. In these films, women like sex as much as men, there’s no glossing over the existence of prostitution, and viewers were assumed to be able to handle the screen depiction of the logical result of having sex—in fact, in of these films, a character’s quite visible pregnancy provides a key plot point in one film.
The Sophia Loren Award Collection allows fans of classic movies to enjoy well-restored (with one partial exception) versions of several of Loren’s films. They also provide the opportunity to revisit an old-fashioned but very enjoyable type of film-making, in which broad stereotypes and simplified plots are skillfully employed for the purpose of entertainment, and the final result is so charming that you can’t possibly object to the lack of realism. Besides the documentary, this set comes with a moderate selection of extras, mostly trailers and galleries of stills. While more bonus features, including commentary tracks, would be welcome, the real prize here is the generally excellent audio and video quality of these classic films.