I have to level with you. I am besotted with Sophia Loren. She has to be one of the ultimate, if not the ultimate, goddesses of the screen. Frankly, in my eyes she is perfection. And whenever I watch a film with Sophia Loren I always find myself thinking: ‘God, she’s at her most beautiful here’. But then I’ll watch another film later and say: ‘No, she’s at her most beautiful here‘.
Despite playing three very different characters in Vittorio de Sica’s 1963 comic anthology Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (or, to give it it’s original Italian title, Ieri, oggi, domani), you have to admit that she looks her tiger eyes temptress best in each role; there’s Adelina, with the utterly natural, sultry and sensual beauty of a working class Neapolitan street trader, and Anna, the chic and elegant, Doir-clad wife of a rich industrialist, and lastly there’s Mara, a high-class Roman call girl whose sun kissed beauty ensures she easily captures the attention and hearts of all men, including her young neighbour who is training to be a priest! The overall effect was that my opinion of her beauty was trumped with each passing instalment.
In short, she’s just beautiful.
Portmanteau films can be a tricky business. Often seen as the sole domain of cheap and cheerful sub-Hammer Horror productions of the 1970s, it’s easy to forget that Italian cinema – with its literary traditions and tastes for the anthology stretch all the way back to the fourteenth century and Giovanni Boccaccio novel The Decameron – was also one of the prime movers in compendium storytelling. But their history doesn’t mean that such cinematic interpretations are always successful: Cult Films (the distributor of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and many examples of Italian cinema from the ’60s and ’70s) recently released the 1962 title Boccaccio ’70 – a film comprising of four distinct tales from directors de Sica, Fellini, Visconti and Monicelli (and was reviewed and discussed by m’colleagues Graham Williamson et al on Cinema Eclectica) – and that is an effort which could perhaps best be described as a curate’s egg.; flashes of brilliance (especially Fellini’s glorious effort) but ultimately too disparate to satisfy wholly.
Thankfully with Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow we are getting the vision of just one director (de Sica), so the whole effort is much more cohesive, as is the film’s central theme of lust and physical attraction which runs through each of the three vignettes. This surer ground is further cemented by the co-operation of de Sica’s two most favourite and recurring performers, Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, the Burton and Taylor or Tracy and Hepburn of Italian cinema. There’s no better a performer to embody this film’s central theme than the divine diva Loren, whilst Mastroianni superbly plays those captivated by her beauty.
The first instalment, Adelina, is set in the poor backstreets of ’50s Naples. Loren’s eponymous heroine is married to her sweetheart Carmine (Mastroianni), a man who hasn’t worked since the day he was drafted into the military. With a husband, a child and a baby on the way to take care of, it is left to Adelina to be the family breadwinner, which she does by selling contraband cigarettes on the black market. When an unpaid fine leads to a warrant for Adelina’s incarceration, it looks like the young family are about to be divided. Coming to Adelina and Carmine’s aid is an elderly lawyer who points out that not only can a pregnant lady not be sent to gaol, according to Italian law she can also receive a stay of six months maternity. Armed with this information, Adelina hatches a plan that will ensure she never once has to set foot inside prison – she will remain pregnant in perpetuity! Eight years and seven children later, the ramshackle house is fir to burst, as is Carmine who is utterly exhausted and unable to rise to the challenge, as it were. As impotency strikes, it looks like the law will finally catch up with Adelina.
This is a wonderfully breezy and genuinely funny start to the film. Blessed with the superb comic interplay of Loren and Mastroianni – the former gloriously embodying both the Italian humour and the countries preoccupation with the Madonna status of such fecund femininity, and the latter an hilarious henpecked husband – de Sica delivers a love letter to the solidarity of a community who have nothing but each other and love in their hearts. In presenting a deliciously light and risqué comedy, the master of neo-realism shows that he hasn’t forgotten those roots.
The second story is Anna and it’s immediately clear that we’ve moved up in the world as de Sica’s camera is positioned at the wheel of a sleek, convertible Rolls Royce as it ghosts its way through the streets of upmarket Milan. We hear Loren’s voice, bored and idly working her way through her social diary as she stops to pick up her lover, the journalist Renzo (Mastroianni; looking sharp but some social distance away from Loren’s Dior wardrobe). Their affair is a clandestine one as Anna is in fact the wife of a VIP industrialist, currently away on EEC business in Stuttgart. Renzo, a modest Fiat 600 driver, is a little perturbed by the blithe indifference she possesses at the wheel of the expensive Rolls; forever tailgating the hapless driver in front of her or sailing too close to the wind. Amused, Anna allows him to drive and the pair discuss their plans for their affair, but those plans are immediately extinguished when Renzo veers off the road to avoid knocking a child roadside flower seller over and promptly crashes the car. Appalled by Renzo’s carelessness, it becomes clear that Anna’s exquisite beauty is only skin deep – image and consumerism are all she cares about.
Anna is the film’s slightest tale, both in terms of the story itself and also, at just twenty minutes, its running time. But even this weak link in the chain has an attraction that is hard to shake off. The installment allows us to see a different side to Loren and the actress more than meets the challenge, whilst Mastroianni is in much less comic mode than in the two tales either side of it and strikes an effortlessly cool and likeable leading man presence.
The final tale in the trilogy is perhaps the single thing that makes Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow so well known. Mara is set in Rome and sees Loren playing a desirable escort who works from her apartment from a very selective list of regular, cut above clientèle, earning around a million lira a month. Whenever Mastroianni’s Augusto, the Mr Fix-it son of a Bologna industrialist, is in town to oil the wheels of Roman bureaucracy, he spends his down-time with his beloved Mara. However, on this particular stay he finds that his particular brand of bunga bunga party has to be put on hold as he competes for Mara’s attention with her neighbours; a callow eighteen-year-old who, despite studying for the priesthood, has become smitten by her beauty, and his formidable elderly grandmother who is aghast at the second thoughts he has subsequently developed. Initially, the grandmother is determined to battle and pour scorn on Mara for her chosen profession, but she soon comes around and begs for her help in convincing her beloved grandson to continue with his training at the seminary. Agreeing to help, Mara repeatedly spurns the neurotic Augusto’s advances until he’s at the end of his tether. His reward, once all comes good, is the infamous strip tease Loren provides for the film’s climax – a routine that Loren once revealed wasn’t choreographed in advance it was simply made up on the spot. Further proof at how naturally sexy Loren was. Be advised, if your watching this on your plasma screen…it may melt!
Mara is perhaps the ultimate in Italian comedy, trading as it does on the country’s twin obsessions; sex and religion. Both themes are handled lightly and fondly and it’s self evident from their playing that Loren and Mastroianni were having a ball making it. Its a suitably frothy end to a brightly colourful, carefree and sexy production.