Film is full of famous duos: Laurel and Hardy, Tracy and Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall. Each pair of names conjuring recognizably distinct personalities (usually opposites that compliment one another) and memorable cinematic moments specific to their unique chemistry together. But when Sophia Loren was coupled up with Marcello Mastroianni in the 1954 Italian comedy Too Bad She's Bad it was the beginning of an on-screen relationship that would span half a century in over a dozen films making the couple the most recognizable faces of Italian film. Both achieved international fame and recognition individually. Loren was the first actress to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance with 1961's Two Women and Mastroianni has more Oscar nominations for foreign language performances (3 Best Actor nominations: 1962's Divorce Italian Style, 1977's A Special Day, and 1987's Dark Eyes) than any other performer. But the two worked best when they were together, especially loving and fighting in the Italian sex comedies that brought them to the attention of audiences.
And perhaps their most iconic cinematic moment occurred in this week's film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience, Vittorio De Sica's triptych Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. You better believe my best shot comes from that scene, which we'll get to soon enough (not to tease you, but you'll know it when you see it - even if you've never seen the film). Because the film is broken up into 3 stories, each set in a different Italian city, there are actually 3 Best Shots this week. And that famous scene isn't even in the best section of the film! That distinction belongs to the film's first section about Adelina of Naples.
When things are broken up into multiple parts, there's always gonna be ones that stand out more than the others. At almost an hour, "Adelina" is longer and more interesting than either of the other 2 stories in the film that I wish they had just added 30 minutes or so and made the film all about this. (But then we would've missed out on the film's famous last scene, which I would not be okay with.) The first story in the film is about a perpetually unemployed husband and a wife that sells cigarettes on the blackmarket. To avoid serving time in jail, she is eternally pregnant thanks to a law that prevents her from being arrested if she's nursing or with child.
The shot I've chosen as my Best from this section shows Loren's Adelina along the steps of Naples, where she appears everyday to sell her illegal wares. Usually surrounded by the other women that work in her profession, they have all scattered to the wind when it's announced that the police are on their way. All leave expect Adelina. A sole figure, standing her ground and taunting the officers with her Get Out of Jail Free card:
There is very little in life that Adelina has control over. She and her family are virtually penniless. She must work to feed her growing brood, otherwise they starve. But in this moment with her head held high, cradling her child against her bosom - she has the power. And she relishes every moment of it.
In the film's second (and least successful) part, Loren plays Anna of Milan, a wealthy woman in a loveless marriage with a powerful man (his name is literally on ever billboard in the city, proclaiming his importance). She begins a fling with another man, out of boredom more than spite, who she picks up to go for a drive in her Rolls-Royce. Unlike Adelina who fights for and savors her small position of power, Anna, decked out in expensive furs and Christian Dior, takes all she has for granted. She tells her lover Renzo there is a profound emptiness inside her and for a brief minute the shallow woman becomes contemplative:
It's the only instance of the story where Anna becomes anything close to being sympathetic. After Renzo accidentally crashes her car, she reveals her true feelings. There is an emptiness inside her, but it is of her own making. Her greed and superficial cares have made her dead inside. What I love in this instance is that Renzo reaches his hand out to her as if trying to save her, but the cold look on her face and steadfast gaze in the distance shows that she's too far away to ever be saved by anyone - least of all him.
Which brings us to the last segment of the film in which Loren plays Mara of Rome, a high-class call girl that begins a flirtatious, but innocent relationship with her young neighbor, a priest in seminary school. Unaware of her profession, the boy becomes infatuated with her. But when his grandmother denounces the harlot in front of him, he spurns his family and refuses to continue his priestly studies. Mara, feeling guilty about the ensuing events, vows to light candles and remain celibate until the young man returns to school. Which makes it all very difficult for her main client. Luckily she's not above giving a little taste, which brings us to the film's climax and most famous moment. The Striptease:
I almost went with a single shot of Loren, when she turns around with a shocked look after almost taking off her bra - remembered what she promised. But decided that a two shot of the famous actors was much more fitting. And I realized that I had created my own tease in revealing Mastroianni in my procession of shots. Nowhere to be seen in "Adelina", the hint of a hand in "Anna" and finally the big reveal: Loren and Mastroianni together at last. And the scene is the best of the entire film - there's a reason it's so well remembered. Loren scorching hot, every inch the sex symbol she is, seductively rolls down her stocking while giving Mastroianni a come-hither look. But the best part is the juxtaposition of Loren's very adult-like pose with Mastroianni's child-like one. His face resting in his hands, as eager and excited as a young boy seeing a pair of boobs for the very first time! The scene is so famous that years later when the two co-stars appeared in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter, they recreated the striptease, but this time Mastroianni falls asleep before Loren can even finish. Able to poke fun of the legend that had built around them over the decades, Loren and Mastroianni's chemistry, like all of film's great duos, is as apparent then as it was in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.