According to various sources, Sophia Loren had an impressive share of success in Hollywood during the 1950s, but soon she became more and more frustrated about the parts she was offered. So, to prove to herself and the world the seriousness of her dedication to her craft and her refusal to be mainly recognized for her sex-appeal, she went back to Italy where she starred in the neo-realistic movie La Ciociara as Cesira, a woman who flees from Rome with her young daughter Rosetta during World War II and suffers from air raids and rape in the Italian countryside. When La Ciociara opened in American cinemas, critics responded very positive to her change of image and Sophia Loren’s plan to prove herself as a talented actress worked out perfectly when she began to collect various international awards for her performance – from Cannes, New York and also from Hollywood where she became the first person to receive an Oscar for a performance in a non-English-speaking role. Mission accomplished!
Going back to Italy was probably the smartest thing Sophia Loren could have done at this point in her career – because La Ciociara makes one thing perfectly clear: how relaxed and comfortable Sophia Loren is in her own language, in her own country, with co-stars and a crew from her own background. More than that, she obviously has an enormous talent for bringing women like Cesira to live – ordinary women from her home, strong and proud, true fighters who won’t have their fate decided by somebody else. It’s obvious in every frame of La Ciociara that Sophia Loren felt a very strong connection to her character and that her ‘home field advantage’ helped her to give a very natural and stupendous performance.
In some ways, this performance is surprisingly full of stereotypes. But it becomes clear right away that they aren’t ugly or untrue but rather become a collection of cultural behaviour and Italian mannerisms. Her temperamental outbursts, her way of shaking her fist in front of everybody’s face, the way she claps her hands together, it’s all just so magnificently…Italian. Her Cesira is a very authentic and earthy creation and not once does Sophia Loren’s extraordinary beauty distract from the seriousness of her performance as a determined and protective mother and widow. Despite her unique appearance, Sophia Loren achieves the remarkable goal of turning Cesira into an average ‘every-woman’ who is neither very special nor very extraordinary but who turns into a symbol of womanhood and motherhood in Italy during World War II and presented all the strength and pride of these women and their ability to adjust themselves to difficult times. This way, Sophia Loren’s performance is both a private story of personal experiences but also stands for so many similar stories that remain untold.
The high level of ‘Italian-ness’ in her performance guarantee a lot of very loud and emotional moments and Sophia Loren never holds anything back in expressing every feeling inside of her and carrying it on her face but there are also many small moments that could easily be overlooked or forgotten but with these little details she brings everything in her work to a full circle and achieves the goal of creating a fully-realized character with all sorts of edges and flaws and strength and courage. The way she walks through a kitchen and puts food in her bag, eats ice from a window or drinks wine from a plate is not only wonderful to watch in its simplicity but also helps to show everything that Sophia Loren wants to express – it gives her character a very natural and realistic basis that makes her instantly recognizable but also demonstrates how completely she inhabits this typically Italian, out-spoken, temperamental, emotional and fierce woman with a big heart, a strong will to survive and a strong dedication to her daughter whom she wants to protect from the terror of war.
This complete dedication of a mother to her daughter’s well-being is also the most critical point of the story and also Sophia Loren’s biggest success. This kind of strong determination that completely dominates the character might have easily resulted in either an overly sentimental or too two-dimensional character but Sophia Loren avoided all these aspects thanks to the realism of both her performance and the movie and her dominant, no-nonsense but still loving characterization that always reflects to the various situation that Cesira and her daughter find themselves in. From the first moments on-screen, Sophia Loren portrays this strong bond between Cesira and her daughter but her strong screen-presence avoids that this storyline dominates her performance and Sophia Loren’s loud and strong, but equally subtle performance becomes almost naturally the centre of attention and makes it appear that she influences the action instead of the other way around. The quiet moments between these two women, mostly underlined by unnecessary but still effective background music, create a very stark contrast to Sophia Loren’s emotional outbursts but they all blend perfectly together and she creates Cesira as a flowing character who goes through quiet and slow, loud and fast moments but never changes its substance.
Sophia Loren also never becomes too ‘dramatic’ despite all the suffering and tragedies she goes through. Cesira’s determination and strength keeps her from wallowing in her own pain but lets her solely focus on the effects these events have on her daughter, as hard as they may be to accept for herself. Besides that, Sophia Loren also finds various other traits in Cesira – her talk with some elderly women about Mussolini’s sex life, which she explains to her daughter with a giggling “We’re talking about politics” is a very amusing moment. And even though she was able to create Cesira as an ordinary woman for who looks don’t seem to matter, she still understands the physical attraction of herself and the character but never uses it to gain any advantage. Instead, her romantic chemistry with Jean-Paul Belmondo shows a woman who refuses to be seen as an object which becomes just as clear in a scene in a train when she reacts disgusted to a man who was starring at her breasts. At the same time, the danger of war doesn’t prevent Cesira from admiring the physical features of a Russian deserter. Ultimately, Sophia Loren plays Cesira as a woman who isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind or to demand a favour.
Sophia Loren also showed Cesira as a woman of complex intelligence. She seems neither overly smart but she is certainly not stupid either. She has a very practical will of survival and has adjusted herself to her situation but at the same time, she always tries to get something better for her daughter and herself. She leaves Rome in hope for a better life in the country but she cannot escape the terror of war and so she keeps on going, always hoping for a better tomorrow. At the same time, her temperamental character often gets her in unnecessary trouble, especially in connection to her daughter. When two men try to get closer to Rosetta she immediately pushes them away even though they are in a highly influential position. When she later hears a German officer talking about the children who will pay for their parent’s behaviour, she immediately attacks him to ask angrily what the children have to do with all of this. Cesira surely isn’t a political woman – she gives food to some Allied soldiers, even though reluctantly, but not because she truly believes in them but only because she hopes that the war will be over sooner because of them. She obviously prefers the Allies to the Germans but she also doesn’t care about the war or Mussolini, she only wants it to end. And for her own protection, she carries a knife in her bag – and Cesira is the kind of woman who doesn’t care against whom she would use it.
Sophia Loren creates some very beautiful and fascinating images during the first three quarters of La Ciociara and uses the script mostly to establish her own character. Her strong screen-presence and the creation of Cesira help to overlook the fact that, in some moments, the script is actually asking very little of her. But all these early scenes help to lay the foundation for the horror and pain that dominate the last 20 minutes of the movie and give Sophia Loren the possibility to use all the aspects of her performance so far and bring them together in various haunting and devastating scenes. The convulsing scenes in the church are disturbing to watch and Sophia Loren shows how Cesira is overwhelmed by her fear and panic in these moments – fear for herself, but even more for her daughter. The realization that she isn’t able to protect Rosetta in these moments is disturbing and heartbreaking and creates a powerful mix of grief and helplessness. In the next scenes, Sophia Loren’s sorrow, her grief, her pain and her humiliation are portrayed in just a few seconds before she again focuses all these feelings towards her daughter. In these moments, it becomes clear how much Cesira blames herself and how unable she is to cope with these feelings as she constantly tries to make her daughter forget what happened and go on. But it’s surely her scene when she stops a car with American GIs and yells her anger at them that stands out as Sophia Loren’s most powerful moment – an outstanding, moving and harrowing scene that is unforgettable in its tragedy and realism.
There was surely no doubt in Sophia Loren’s mind that this is her movie, that she is its centre and that she symbolizes motherhood in its most protective and pure, even though her strength is tested by her environment. In the hands of Sophia Loren, Cesira became a very straight-forward character without any surprises or secrets, she isn’t a deep fountain of untouched emotions but this way she became one of the most realistic characters in this category – a woman who is trying to protect her daughter and escape the terror of war. Cesira doesn’t seem like a character that was invented for a story but instead, she is always the driving force, a woman who doesn’t begin or end with the movie but who appears to exist even before and after. Because of that, Sophia Loren created a character that is both simple and complex and she thankfully always kept its directness, she seemed to get lost in the feelings of Cesira and gave a performance that is neither studied nor overly spontaneous but rather a thought-out collection of emotional and intuitive gestures. If the first three quarters of her performance and the movie had been on the same level as her last scenes, it would have been perfect but so she still gets a strong