I hadn't actually seen a lot of Sophia Loren's movies before getting my hands on the Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection, but she was certainly an actress I was aware of. Her voluptuous beauty has made her iconic, and amongst international film stars, she is one of the greats. Yet, outsider of a few random films, her career had largely eluded me.
This set of three DVDs collects four of Loren's movies, starting in the earliest part of her career, with two selections from 1954, and then moving into the middle period, showing the actress as she matured and started making more serious pictures. The box is put together well, with the two B-grade selections in the mix sitting together on disc 2, sandwiched between a lush musical extravaganza and a more serious melodrama from the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica. All the movies represented here were made in Italy, allowing for the actress to express herself naturally and represent her country for all of its unique flavors. Over the course of the films, you will begin to see the Sophia Loren personality emerge, showing more of who the performer was with each successive selection.
***DISC 1 ***
* Carosello Napoletano (129 minutes - 1954 - 4 stars): The set starts off with a real surprise, a musical compilation from director Ettore Giannini. Neapolitan Carousel is not really a narrative picture, but a series of songs that tell the cultural history of Naples. The only thing really connecting the segements is a family of wandering musicians who provide the lead-in to some of the different numbers. Once each of the songs start, the movie shifts completely to those short sequences, and Giannini has fun moving in between the "fantasy" of the performances and the "reality" of the performers. There are nods to traditional theatre, as well as opera and dance. It's quite fun, reminiscent in some ways of old Hollywood revue pictures as well as Powell & Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman.
A very young Sophia Loren appears in one of the stories about halfway into Carosello Napoletano, playing Sisina, a model turned actress whose rise in the entertainment world forces her to turn her back on her lover. Out of despair, he joins the army and goes off to war--with tragic results. Many of the songs have a darker edge, though they are also romantic and bawdy. I am not sure if Loren does her own singing, but if she's lip-syncing, it's a convincing performance. Her gowns are beautiful, as are the costumes and the sets in the whole movie, which could rival MGM's canon in terms of sheer spectacle. I particularly liked a scene where we see a funicular climbing a mountain, only for a young boy to suddenly appear from behind the peaks and stop it Godzilla-style. His father then appears and chastises the child for destroying the wonderful perspective shot he had created, before leading into the next musical number. Splendid!
Video for DVD 1: The full-frame image is of pretty decent quality. Sometimes the colors seem a little washed-out or oversaturated, with very unnatural tones, but as opposed to some of the other films in the set, this looks possibly like the nature of the film itself, which is full of garish and brightly colored costumes. There is also a noticeable difference between early scenes on location at the seaside and the soundstage material, with the location shoot having much more grain. There is not a lot of spotting, but you will see some flickers and wavy lines at times.
***DISC 2 ***
* Attila (79 min. (erroneously listed as 100 on the box) - 1954 - 2 stars): Even in terms of B-movies, Attila is a B-movie. This historical drama from director Pietro Francisci emulates the big Hollywood epics, but it looks more like Oliver Stone's Alexander as re-enacted by the attendees of an Italian renaissance fair. Anthony Quinn plays Attila with a surprisingly subdued relish. For as many times as he reminds us he's a barbarian, he mostly keeps his appetites in check. More's the pity, then, when Sophia Loren, as Italy's Crown Princess Honoria, offers herself to him as a pre-paid E-Z Pass into Rome. Ostensibly the villainess of the piece, Loren is really playing a supporting role as the ambitious monarch trying to maneuver around her sissy brother (Claude Laydu).
Attila also shares his throne with his brother, the peace-seeking Bleda (Ettore Manni, his character's name reminding me of Borat's retarded brother Bilo). Bleda would rather have a friendship with the Italians, but Attila wants to conquer them like a man, and so he kills Bleda to clear the way. These dual stories of co-ruling siblings and the betrayals that come with a will to power are as close as Attila gets to anything resembling a theme or greater meaning. Overly stagy and needlessly wordy, one would have suspected that the filmmakers would have wanted to make a bloody, lusty spectacle, but the battle scenes are short and toothless and the one tiny sex scene between Quinn and Loren takes place off screen. I guess this was to be expected from a movie that concludes with some tidy propaganda for the Catholic church. Talk about your anti-climaxes!
* Madame Sans-Gêne (98 min. (erroneously listed as 118 on the box) - 1962 - 2 1/2 stars ): This second costume picture lets us know from the get-go that it's better equipped to, how you say, display Ms. Loren's assets. Set during the French Revolution, Sophia plays Catherine Sans-Gêne, a laundress who works in the streets, her low-cut white blouse soaked with soapy water. There, she cleans the shirts of one Lieutenant Napoleon (Julien Bertheau) and ends up falling in love with the handsome rebel Lefebvre (Robert Hossein) when his battalion takes over her laundromat for their battlestation. The smitten Sans-Gêne chases Lefebvre across the Italian battlefields and then to the royal court, where her free will and compulsion for self-expression could cost them everything.
The light-hearted pseudo-history lesson appears to be tailor-made as a Sophia Loren vehicle. Director Christian-Jaque holds out as long as he can from dressing his star in anything with a high neck, only raising the bustline when Sans-Gêne has her Eliza Doolittle transformation to serve the emperor. It's actually a welcome change, because it lets us see that Loren is as beautiful as she is sexy. Her animated performance, where she plays the spicy Italian even when she's supposed to be French, also shows that her personality has a lot to do with her sex appeal. Madame Sans-Gêne spends most of her time in this picture hanging with the men, and her comfort amongst them makes her spitfire mannerisms all the more attractive. She's a woman among the boys.
I'm sure the story here is highly dubious as far as historical facts are concerned, but as a movie built from the ground up for the starlet, Sophia Loren could find no better stage. Well, she could. A stronger script and more animated direction would have made a huge difference, as the rest of the film is incapable of keeping pace with its heroine, but you know what I mean.
Video for DVD 2: Attila is presented as a 4X3 full screen picture, essentially preserving its 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Very little if any restoration has been done on the print, however. It's washed out and covered in dirt and scratches. It looks like the kind of image quality we used to see on cable or VHS.
Madame Sans-Gêne is widescreen, and it is a notch or two up from Attila. It is still plenty faded, but there are far less spots on the picture. The running time for the movie is promoted as 118 minutes, which is alleged to be the full, original running time according to IMDB. Other cuts, including the U.S. release version dubbed in English, were shorter, running 98 minutes, and despite the 118 listed on the outer package, caveat emptor, it is only 98 when you load up the disc.
As it turns out, there are a ton more packaging errors as spotted by our own eagle-eyed Stuart Galbraith VI, including running times wrong, languages misrepresented, and aspect ratios listed incorrectly. For a full rundown, check his review here.
***DISC 3 ***
* I Girasoli (Sunflower) (101 min. - 1970 - 3 1/2 stars): Sophia Loren made three films with Italian Neorealist pioneer Vittorio De Sica and a whopping thirteen with co-star Marcello Mastroianni. This romantic drama set in World War II is the kind of sweeping love story that could be pretentious and overdone in most hands, but De Sica brings his usual humanity to the project and, as a result, brings out two very down-to-earth performances from his stars, both of whom can play it much bigger than allowed.
Loren plays Giovanna, a simple Neapolitan girl who engages in a little fun with a soldier, Antonio (Mastroianni), on the eve of his going to war. On a lark, the two get married so he can score twelve days leave for his honeymoon, and they end up falling in love with each other. The actors appear to be having fun together, and their very real chemistry makes their passion and affection absolutely convincing. The couple can only hold off the army for so long, however, and Antonio is shipped off to the Russian front, where he goes missing, failing to return with the rest of the troops when the war ends.
I Girasoli is told in a flip-flop fashion, starting with Giovanna's hunt for her lost husband and jumping back in time to show us how they came together, fell in love, and how Antonio was lost. The battle sequences using archival footage are elegantly done, De Sica superimposing the red flag of war over the fighting. As a director, he is just as facile with the bigger moments as he is with the smaller ones, and this goes a long way to making I Girasoli another winner in the set. As a more mature actress, Sophia Loren is more comfortable on screen here than in any of the other films, and she seems absolutely confident with her age, once more proving her appeal comes from within at least as much as it does from her appearance.
Video for DVD 3: This widescreen 16X9 transfer has a grainy, somewhat metallic look, which is partially indicative of the time it was shot, partially a case of the clean-up crew needing to take another pass at the source material. There aren't any overly egregious cases of scratches or compression problems, it's just the image overall is a little soft.
All of these movies have the same audio specs: mono mixes with English and Spanish subtitles. Two of these films are bilingual, with Madame Sans-Gêne being in Italian and French, and I Girasoli being in Italian and supposedly, according the packaging, English--but I didn't hear any English, though there was some Russian. The sound is decent, without anywhere close to the same wear and tear as the images on the middle films.
The translation for Attila is pretty bad, often speedy and lacking quite a bit of basic punctuation. Though the other films can also suffer from a speed problem, the writing in the subtitles isn't nearly as clumsy as the Attila titles. Fans of Italian cinema should already be prepared for the fast-talking performances anyway.
DVD 3 has a short documentary (eighteen-and-a-half minutes) called Sophia Loren: La Diva Popolana. It encapsulates the actress' biography, discusses the films in this set, and touches more on her other collaborations with De Sica. There are lots of photos, though only clips from the films in the 4-Film Collection. In addition to a biographer and a historian, there is commentary by Arthur Cohn, producer of I Girasoli; filmmaker/actress Domenica Cameron-Scorsese (Martin's daughter); and Loren's sons with producer Carlo Ponti, Edoardo and Carlo Ponti, Jr. Unfortunately, Sophia Loren herself does not participate, even though the actress is still working at the age of 74.
The three-DVD set comes in a cardboard book with two plastic trays, one with a DVD on each side and the other holding just one disc. The book has photos printed on it, and the approved "poster" credits for each movie. The book is wrapped in a puffy vinyl slipcover that has more about each film on the back, including cameo images and very short plot summaries.
Rent It. Though two out of four ain't bad, it's probably not enough to send a consumer in full-tilt to purchase the Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection. Carosello Napoletano should delight most fans of the movie musical, and I Girasoli will be appreciated by those who like Vittorio De Sica's more serious side, but the other films are of pretty limited appeal. If you're looking for a basic primer on the actress, I am sure there are better selections to be had out there, too. If, however, you have a real yen for Sophia Loren, then by all means, knock yourself out.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.