When Sophia Loren was born in 1934, in a tiny ward for unwed mothers in the Clinica Santa Margherita in Rome, Benito Mussolini had been in power for around 13 years. A few months prior, Italy had held national elections, with Mussolini’s National Fascist Party winning a less-than-surprising 99.84% of the vote. The state was gaining control, day by day, year by year, of industry and all labor; worker’s strikes were deemed illegal and refusal of public allegiance to the Party was deemed a fireable offense. Loren, who would become an international symbol of glamour and sex, was born into a fascist state racing to war, and as she was a teenager, emerged into a country which was bombed out and had no clear direction.
“Hunger was the major theme of my childhood,” she writes in her memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Too young to remember the clear-headedness of fascism, being a child during the Allied bombings and the eventual Italian rebellion against their Nazi allies, when the war was over Loren lived in a country suddenly defined by squalor and poverty. It’s hardly a wonder she looked to the glamour of movies as an escape. She patiently moved through the less-respected corners of culture to get where she wanted to go, and refused to brook her rising career for anyone.
Now, post-war Italy is seen as one of the cultural high points of the Twentieth Century, spearheaded by the advent of neorealism. Neorealism was a cinematic movement which favored amateur actors, no sets, and a focus on issues of poverty. Roberto Rossellini would open the doors to the movement with his masterpiece Rome, Open City when Loren was just nine, but she speaks of cinema at that time in terms of detail and destiny: the neorealists “focused their cameras on people’s—especially children’s—gestures and faces, and on everyday objects. Meanwhile, American troops were flooding Italy with Hollywood films that made viewers dream a different kind of dream, one that brimmed with freedom and hope.”
The new Italian government quickly seized on this bright spot, passing laws which froze the profits of American films in Italy, allowing for greater investment in domestic industry. This new development allowed Loren to convince her mother that they should look to films for money, as opposed to begging. The two of them took the cheapest tickets they could find for cameos in the 1951 epic Quo Vadis. She and her mother worked cameo roles, which Loren describes as a pretty miserable first job: “I still remember the din, the lights, the cries, the stifling heat, hundreds and hundreds of people standing for hours, and being moved from one set to another like post office packages.” They earned eighty bucks, and Loren’s mother wanted to go home. Sophia declined, and her mother left her at a cousin’s house. In her teenage years, Loren had grown used to propositions from men: her gym teacher and come to her house when she was 15 and proposed, with a straight face, marriage. So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise when the photo-romance Sogno came calling.
Photo-romances, or fotoromanzi, were widely derided by all. Not quite novels, not quite comic books, they featured photos of actors in various poses while text described what they were saying and the action. Think silent films in pulp paperback. As Loren notes, the “Communists…called the photo-romances the opium of the people, the Catholics called them an instrument perdition, the intellectuals—many of whom actually wrote and invented them—called them third-rate literature. But at least at the beginning, the photo-romance encompassed an element of transgression, youth, and modernity.” Born out of enterprising magazine publishers, the craze quickly swept Italy and Loren found herself regularly on the cover of Sogno, a leading publication.
“For those of us who aspired to the world of cinema, appearing in a photo-romance was almost a forced passage,” Loren writes. “It served to make you known, and it also taught you how to act in front of the camera lens, how to respond to the director’s orders. and how to overcome your inhibitions at emoting. As the insightful journalist, Vincenzo Mollica, so rightly put it, you learned to come to terms with your own expressiveness…In the evening, I would spend hours practicing in front of the mirror: I’d go from desperation to sadness, from furious hatred to the most foolish love, from scorn to concern, from rage to passion by simply raising an eyebrow, widening my eyes, pouting my lips.”
It was this experience, one as a “human jukebox”, as she describes it, in which Loren got her training. The fotoromanzi paid for her day-to-day while she continued to get into every movie production she could, playing bit parts where they were to be had. Her popularity in the photo-romance B-leagues helped her stand out, and by 1953, the year of Italy’s second post-war election, she had found her first leading role in film. Her last issue of Sogno featured a farewell:
“SOFIA LAZZARO, the unforgettable interpreter of so many of our photo-romances, has been whisked away to the movies: but Sofia hasn’t forgotten the readers of Sogno, and to them she fondly bids farewell and promises to remember them forever.”