It’s the perfect star vehicle for the 86-year-old. Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor who lives in the Italian coastal town of Bari, where she makes a special friendship with Momo, a Senegalese street child. It’s not the first on-screen version of Romain Gary’s well-received 1975 novel The life before us. In a version staged by Moshe Mizrahi in 1977 with the title Madame RosaSimone Signoret played the title role and the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Loren says she has admired Signoret for years: “She was an impressive, amazing actress.”
However, in preparation for their new version, Loren and her director avoided visiting Signorets again. She says her film gets closer to the book by “telling the story from the boy’s point of view”. There’s also a deeper motivation for sticking to the book as it reflects Loren’s own story of survival – the poverty and hardship of her childhood in war-torn Italy.
After early appearances in small Italian films, Loren moved to Hollywood in 1956 for a five-picture deal with Paramount. But Hollywood didn’t like her and she made one unimportant film after another – Boy on a dolphin with Alan Ladd, Legend of the Lost with John Wayne, It started in Naples with Clark Gable – before starring with Cary Grant The pride and the passion (1957) and Houseboat (1958). Her highly acclaimed romance with Grant ended abruptly and in 1957 Loren married the Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who had made a significant contribution to the start of her career. They stayed together until Ponti’s death in 2007.
A return to Italy in 1960 brought the best film role of her career as Cesira, a widowed shopkeeper who fled Rome with her daughter in Vittorio De Sica Two women (based on the story by Alberto Moravia La ciociara). For this she received the Oscar for best actress in 1961, the first actor in the history of the academy to win the coveted prize for a foreign language film. Set during World War II, Two women depicts the horrors of survival, including a brutal rape of Loren’s character and her teenage daughter by soldiers in a church.
Alongside this film, Loren highlights The human voice (2014), also judged by her son as “the [two] the most difficult films I’ve made in my life ”. Based on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 one-act play, Loren’s version transported the set to Naples around 1950, with Loren as Angela, a woman who goes on an emotional roller coaster during one of the last phone calls with the man she loves. “It’s a short piece, an act, but it’s incredibly long if you do it. I understand why so many actresses want this – it’s a tour de force, because of the strength and violence in that kind of passionate love and sadness at the end. ”
Loren is looking forward to the latest version of, she says The human voice, Directed by Pedro Almodóvar and played Tilda Swinton, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month.
Ponti explains the process of working with his mother on this film. “We shot The human voice over the course of 10 days, but we rehearsed for over three weeks. My mother is not an actress who likes to rehearse, she is very instinctive, but I told her, “We need the rehearsal to shape the emotional arc of your performance and personalize every line.” We talked about her life and love , and it was really an amazing experience because I learned facts about my mother that I didn’t know. ”
The life before us was challenging in a different way. “I was very personally related to Madame Rosa because it brought back memories of my life when we were at war in Italy and I was a little girl,” says Loren. “There was a lot of suffering because we had bombs every night. It was impossible to go to school, it was impossible to get food. It was impossible to live. ”
She is full of praise for her co-star Ibrahima Gueye, who plays Momo, a Senegalese immigrant to Italy who was 11 years old when the film was made. “Many people don’t see immigrants and refugees as human beings, they walk past them on the street and are still a world of their own,” says Loren. “In the story of the friendship between Madame Rosa and Momo, everything separates them – age, race, religion, culture – and yet in the end they are both survivors. They bond through pain and the fact that they both grew up without families. ”
For Loren, despite the sad ending of the story, The life before us “Is it more about rebirth than mortality. What Madame Rosa passes on to Momo is her spirit, her heart, what she has learned from life. While we were doing it, we never talked about dying, we talked about what it means to start something new. ”
She sees a strong contemporary message in the film. “The world needs empathy, the world has to come together, we are being torn apart by social media, by politics and by some executives. We need to find ways to bring people together, and The life before us trying to do just that. ”
While for Loren “Italy will always be in my heart”, she has lived in Geneva for many years, which she describes as “very peaceful”.
“It’s very close to Italy. So if I want to go to Rome, I just get on a train. I’ve traveled a lot, so I really enjoy staying at home, looking at my books, going for walks in the park, alone and with friends.
“My approach to life is very simple. Ordinary life inspires me and my family inspires me. I have two lovely children [her elder son, Carlo Ponti Jr, 51, is a conductor] and they gave me grandchildren so I am surrounded by great love every day. ”
Loren has no plans to retire if it means sitting idle or pondering her legacy as a world-famous star, though this year marks the 70th anniversary since her first film showing as an extra ahead of a stellar career with dozens of films as well several singles and albums. “It’s a little early to think about it [retiring]“I say,“ I’m still alive, I’m still full of things I want to do. It is premature to remember. No, no, no, it’s too early. ”
‘The Life Ahead’ will be airing on Netflix and in select cinemas from November 13th
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