Top Ten Sophia Loren Films
Sophia Loren, the embodiment of the mysterious foreign beauty. She’s sophisticated, sensual, exotic and, also, one of the few classic stars of the studio era still living and working today. Heck, she just appeared in the movie musical Nine a few years ago, looking as radiant as ever. And not only is Sophia a living legend in the U.S., she’s a highly respected figure of the Italian cinema, as well.
So, when I was thinking about writing a Hub highlighting the top ten films of a classic Hollywood star, there was no question who I should choose: #21 on AFI’s top 50 screen legends, the ageless Sophia Loren. (I’m hoping to make this the beginning of a series of classic star top ten lists but, right now, let’s just focus on Sophia).
In Sophia’s case, I have decided to focus on her English-language films for this list. The main reason for this is that I am not Italian and therefore feel unqualified to rank her Italian films with any degree of authority. I, also, believe that comparing Sophia's Italian and English-language films would be like comparing apples and oranges. That said if you’re interested in learning about her Italian career, there are plenty of jewels to choose from. Marriage, Italian Style and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow are particular highlights. (You’ll, also, find another Italian film listed as an Honorable Mention at the end of this list).
FYI: I chose the order of my top ten by considering each film's importance in Sophia’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Sophia Loren film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. "ARABESQUE" (1966) -
This is the film that, arguably, crystallizes Sophia Loren's American film personae. When an American pictures Sophia Loren, it’s most likely in the form of the glamorous and mysterious Yasmin. Arabesque is a smart and stylish ‘60’s spy caper starring Sophia opposite Gregory Peck. Peck plays David Pollack, a man charged by an Arabian diplomat to decrypt a strange hieroglyphic message. However, decoding the message means going undercover to prevent others from reading the message first. While undercover, David meets the beautiful Yasmin who always seems to know more than she’s letting on. The plot of this film moves so fast, you might have difficulty keeping up, but the real draw is the chemistry between Sophia and Peck who are completely charming in their scenes together. Cinematography buffs are, also, sure to be fascinated by the film’s constant use of mirrors. Good luck figuring out how some of these shots were done. A breezy and entertaining film, Arabesque will keep you guessing until the very end.
2. “EL CID” (1961) -
El Cid is an epic in every sense of the word. Made in Spain by producer Samuel Bronston (the producer of the epic King of Kings), it pairs Sophia opposite the king of the epics, Charlton Heston. It tells the story of one of Spain’s greatest historical figures, the titular, ‘El Cid’, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (played by Heston). Rodrigo earns his famous nickname when he chooses to free some Moor prisoners rather than execute them as the law commands. The prisoners bestow the name on him in gratitude, explaining that it is a word for “a warrior with the vision to be just and the courage to be merciful”. From this moment on, Rodrigo is set on the path that will lead him to become the greatest hero in Spain. But, his journey does not come without sacrifices. Sophia plays the proud and elegant Chimene, Rodrigo’s bride-to-be. Chimene and Rodrigo share a tumultuous affair, echoed off-screen by Sophia and Heston’s real-life animosity towards one another. As Chimene, Sophia shows great strength as a woman trying to fight against her lover’s destiny, but ultimately helpless to stop it. The battle and crowd scenes in this film are nothing short of amazing. Bronston even brought in the Spanish armed forces and mounted policemen to fill in as soldiers. El Cid was extremely successful when it was first released and even became one of President Kennedy’s personal favorites. Keep in mind, this film is extremely long and can get a little slow in spots; however, if you’re a fan of epic battle sequences and great romances, be sure to check this one out.
3. “THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE” (1964) -
The Fall of the Roman Empire pairs Sophia once again with producer, Samuel Bronston, as well as El Cid director, Anthony Mann. This film is infamous for being one of the most expensive films of all time, virtually bankrupting Bronston’s production studio over the course of filming. But, if you see the movie, it’s all worth it. There are, absolutely, no matte paintings, no miniatures, and no trick photography to be seen here. All of the buildings were built in 3-dimensions with historically accurate interiors as well as exteriors (which is almost unheard of). The movie’s Roman set still holds the record as the biggest outdoor set ever built for one film. The film, itself, is an awe-inspiring interpretation of what led to Rome’s eventual downfall. Sophia plays Lucilla, daughter of, arguably, the last great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Lucilla’s lover, Livius (Ben-Hur’s Stephen Boyd), is groomed to be the next emperor; however, her brother, Commodus, covets the throne for himself. The film, truly, must be seen to be believed, with stunt-work so amazing it’s shocking that there were no serious injuries during production (an exciting mountain trail chariot race is a particular highlight). Christopher Plummer and Alec Guinness both give brilliant performances as the wise Marcus Aurelius and unstable Commodus, respectively. Much like El Cid, the film is extremely long; however, I found that it moves at such a brisk pace, it’s hardly noticeable. A surprisingly intelligent film, history buffs will likely enjoy this, as well as fans of the great sword-and-sandal epics.
4. “HOUSEBOAT” (1958) -
The film often credited as Sophia’s “break-out” performance in America, Houseboat is an endearing family comedy elevated tremendously by Sophia’s chemistry with co-star Cary Grant. Grant plays Tom Winters, an estranged father of three who, suddenly, becomes the sole guardian of his children after the wife he’s been separated from for years passes away. And his children are even less excited about living with their father in his cramped D.C. apartment than he is. When Tom’s youngest son decides to run away, he is returned by another runaway: Cinzia, the daughter of a rich composer desperate to escape her privileged life. Peer pressure from his children persuades Tom to hire Cinzia as their maid and it’s only later that he discovers that she has no idea how to cook or clean. Sophia is adorably charming as Cinzia, bringing life to Tom and the children’s humdrum world. She fits the part so wonderfully, it’s amazing to discover that the role was not originally intended for her. The film was, actually, written by Grant’s then-wife, Betsy Drake, who intended to star in it. However, when Grant and Loren began a steamy affair, Cary insisted the part be rewritten for her talents. Indeed, her scenes with Grant crackle with sexual tension, but off-screen, this film actually marks the end of the Cary Grant/Sophia Loren whirlwind romance. In an odd twist of fate, Sophia even ended up marrying her lifelong love, Italian producer Carlo Ponti, during the production of Houseboat.
5. "MAN OF LA MANCHA" (1972) -
This film marks Sophia’s first official foray into the world of Hollywood musicals. Man of La Mancha (based on the Broadway musical of the same name) tells the well-known tale of Don Quixote (played by Peter O’Toole), a noble but, delusional, old man who convinces himself that he lives in the days of chivalry. He casts himself as a brave knight and attacks windmills he claims are truly giants in disguise. In an interesting twist, this time the story is told directly by the author himself, Miguel de Cervantes, as he waits to appear before the Spanish Inquisition. Sophia gives a riveting performance as the woman Don Quixote insists on calling Dulcinea. Her real name is Aldonza, a poor tavern wench and prostitute, but Don Quixote casts her as a lady of virtue and the great love of his lifetime. Dulcinea is one of Sophia’s grittier roles and she brings a bitter sadness to it not often seen outside of her Italian films. Though not a particularly strong singer, Sophia commits to her songs completely, giving a grim reality to her vocal performance that makes them extremely powerful. If you’ve been following this list numerically, this is a side of Sophia you have not yet seen: earthy, sensual, and emotionally broken. Be forewarned, if you’re a fan of the stage play with no patience for interpretation, you might not care for this version. It is very different from the play with an added dose of reality and (naturally) less theatrical staging. But, if you simply adore musicals and feel an affinity for the story of Don Quixote, this film provides an earnest and stirring version that’s worth your time.
6. "FIVE MILES TO MIDNIGHT" (1962) -
This is a film you’re likely to have some trouble tracking down, but if you do, it’s worth it. As a joint American/Italian/French production it can sometimes be tracked down under its French title: Le Couteau dans la Plaie. The film stars Sophia as Lisa, an Italian expatriate living in Paris with her jealous and possessive husband, Robert (played by Anthony Perkins). Finally deciding she’s had enough with her husband’s mood swings, Lisa confronts Robert at the airport before he leaves on one of his business trips. It’s decided that they will go their separate ways once he returns. But, when she gets word that Robert has been killed in a plane crash, the issue seems null and void. That is, until a very alive Robert stumbles in her front door after the funeral. He convinces her to keep his death a secret so they can both collect on his flight insurance before parting ways. But, as time goes on, it becomes more and more questionable whether Robert has any intention of letting Lisa go. The tension in this film relies entirely on Anthony Perkins’ performance as the changeable Robert. A role only Perkins could pull off, Robert is a loose cannon capable of being charming and boyish while showing signs of a much darker undercurrent. A true Jekyll and Hyde personality, he’ll make you waver between empathy and fear throughout the course of the film. Sophia is given her chance to shine in the film’s last 15 minutes: when Lisa finally stands up to Robert’s manipulation with startling results.
7. "DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS" (1958)-
One of her very first Hollywood films and the first to pair her opposite Anthony Perkins, Desire Under The Elms features Sophia (in my opinion) at her most naturally beautiful. Based on the Eugene O'Neill play of the same name, this tragic melodrama tells the cautionary tale of Ephraim, a father of three sons who fights desperately to hold onto the ownership of his property against all costs. Sophia plays Anna, Ephraim’s new young wife who, also, desires a piece of the family’s land. Ephraim’s youngest son, Eben (Perkins) is devastated by Anna’s arrival. He wants to inherit his father’s land terribly, even going so far as to bribe his two half-brothers into leaving town. Anna and Eben butt heads at first, but that quickly begins to change. As Anna and Eben grow closer, morality begins to become more and more skewed. Sophia gives a painful and layered performance as Anna, a woman torn apart by the struggle to choose between love and morality. But, the film really belongs to the great Burl Ives who is completely engaging as the self-absorbed Ephraim. This fascinating film features complex characters capable of being hard and cruel yet, still able to elicit our sympathy. You’ll find yourself watching helplessly as each family member fights for their share of Ephraim’s land and how their priorities slowly become twisted to the point of no return.
8. "IT STARTED IN NAPLES" (1960) -
A virtual love letter to Italy, It Started In Naples is a charming romantic comedy staring Sophia opposite the great Clark Gable. Filmed on location, the film is a great look at life in 1960’s Italy (or at least Hollywood’s perception of it). Gable plays Mike, the stereotypical American tourist many of us (despite our efforts) wind up being: endlessly paranoid of pickpockets, terrified of drinking the local water and overwhelmed by culture shock. The reason Mike is in Italy in the first place is to settle his long estranged brother’s estate. But, that falls by the wayside when he discovers his late brother has a young illegitimate son named Nando. Mike learns that since his father’s death, Nando’s sole guardian has been his maternal aunt, Lucia (Loren) who works as a cabaret singer. When Mike becomes concerned with Nando’s lack of education, he begins to challenge Lucia’s custody, something she’s willing to fight tooth and nail to maintain. However, when Lucia’s relationship with Mike begins to turn romantic, things get even more complicated. Sophia is lovable and, at times, surprisingly unsophisticated as the free-spirited Lucia. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the film feature Lucia’s performances at the cabaret. Her number “Americano” is a particular highlight (and guaranteed to get stuck in your head for days).
9. “OPERATION CROSSBOW” (1965) -
Produced by Sophia’s husband, Carlo Ponti, Operation Crossbow is a fictionalized account of the very real Allied espionage mission to destroy German rockets. It’s an exciting spy drama that mixes in actual documentary footage to make it somewhat of a film equivalent of historical fiction. The beginning of the film gives some background on how the German rocket program was developed, even going so far as to show some compassion towards the German scientists conducting the experiments. Leading man George Peppard doesn’t show up until 20 minutes into the movie, but that’s when the story really begins to pick up. Peppard plays Lt. John Curtis, one of three British intelligence agents who must impersonate Nazi-recruited engineers to infiltrate the German rocket program. Sophia plays the small, but memorable, role of Nora, the wife of the man Curtis has been chosen to impersonate. Her presence provides much of the humanity of the film, which accounts for its placement on this list. Honestly, I would have given this film a much higher ranking due to its popularity on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, if not for Loren’s relatively small role in it. The movie can sometimes seem disjointed due to its strange mix of historical events and fictionalized spy dramatics, but if you enjoy stories of wartime action and intrigue (or just occasionally like watching things go boom) you’ll probably appreciate this one. Those who have been reading this list to avoid subtitles, however, are out of luck: Operation Crossbow uses a surprisingly large amount of subtitles given the time that it was made. Yes, all of the German characters actually do speak German. As do most of the characters while they are in Germany. That notable detail was a very important aspect to director, Michael Anderson, who fought valiantly against MGM execs to keep that touch of realism intact. Indeed, many of the film’s bold choices are likely to surprise you.
10. "BETWEEN STRANGERS" (2002) -
The most recent film on this list, Between Strangers features Sophia in one of her elder roles, opposite an all-star cast including Gerard Depardieu, Mira Sorvino, and Malcolm McDowell. Written and directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti, this film is notable for being the one that, finally, prompted Sophia to return to the Venice Film Festival after years of avoiding it. It tells the stories of three very different women, each an artist of a different medium, each in a different stage of her life, and each haunted by something in her past. There’s Natalia (Sorvino), a photographer holding back a dark secret about one of her greatest photos. And there’s Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), a musician whose unfinished business with her father is tearing apart her relationship with her own daughter. And Sophia gives a lovely performance as Olivia, a former artist plagued by the memory of a child she gave up years before and married to a man who can't begin to understand her. Within each of these stories, this emotional drama explores the prospect of moving on from past pain and what is required to achieve that milestone. At times the three stories in this film can seem a little too separated from each other, but its quiet and gentle emotion is bound to draw you towards the lives of these three women (or okay, at least maybe one of them). Whether or not you’re satisfied with the outcome of each of their stories, really depends on your own taste. But, it’s a film, definitely, worth giving a chance.
HONORABLE MENTION: "TWO WOMEN" (1960)
Despite my promise to focus on Sophia’s English-language films, I couldn’t finish a Sophia Loren Top 10 without mentioning this film. It’s the one that earned Sophia her well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actress (the first one ever given for a performance in a foreign language film). Two Women pairs Sophia with her frequent collaborator in the Italian cinema, director Vittorio De Sica. It offers a harrowing look at Italian life during World War II, following the struggles of Cesira, a mother willing to protect her daughter at all costs. When the Allies bomb Rome, Cesira tries to escape with her daughter to Ciociaria (a rural province of Italy). But, the two women face horrific hardship and tragedy along the way, testing the very limits of their relationship. Contrary to expectations at the time, Sophia chose to play the role of the widowed Cesira even though she was offered the role of the daughter first. Her good judgment pays off in spades. She gives her most raw and heartbreaking performance in this film and if you think you can handle the intense subject matter, I highly recommend it.
If you would like to learn more about the lovely Sophia Loren, I recommend the biography, Sophia, Living and Loving: Her Own Story by A.E. Hotchner, as well as, Sophia's own memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life.