Confronted with the verities of life, Nancy Vincenza Kulik asks the question, “What would Sophia Loren do?” That is also the title of the documentary, which follows the life of this American grandmother of Italian descent who has paralleled her life with that of the Italian film icon.
Nancy Kulik has always admired Sophia Loren—first because she is Italian and they share a common origin, Naples. Nancy Kulik’s parents came to the US, where they continued to nurture their link to the mother country not only through its language and cuisine but through a cinema, in which Loren featured prominently.
Sophia Loren seems like the right persona for an Italian-American to construct one’s identity but this is making the short documentary—all of 32 minutes—simplistic. It is not. What Would Sophia Loren Do? is a charming, small gem of a narrative about a woman who, by fate, (with due respect to those who believe in the primacy of ethnicity), is a Neapolitan finding in the life of a grand actress a template for understanding life, coping with the pains and joys of living as we know it.
The docu begins with Nancy being fitted with a mic by her daughter, who is also the executive producer of the project. She tells us of her childhood, growing up in a very wonderful loving Italian heritage background, “ having not Cheerios for breakfast but frittata with broccolini (an Italian egg dish).
As a young woman, Nancy felt she was different. She did not follow the herd, as she states in her own words. Her children would plead that she followed what American women of her generation did—run, jog, eat healthy. It was during those moments of introspection that she would then ask herself: What would Sophia Loren do? Saying that line for the first time in the docu, the next scene shows Sophia Loren herself, at her present magical age, being fitted also with mic, getting ready for the interview. The off-camera voice tells the legendary beauty to button up. Loren looks up very seriously and asks: “Too much cleavage?” Then a smile comes out of those lips—wicked and luscious and maternal.
The memory begins.
The next scenes are masterpieces in editing as the events in the respective lives of two individuals converge, diverge, and meet again in a retelling that is joyfully serendipitous. The presentation seamlessly moves from the more accessible life of Nancy Kulik to the larger-than-life of this Italian diva when something heartwarming takes place: the ordinary circumstances in Nancy Kulik’s biography are pushed through the prisms of film; Sophia Loren’s cinematic achievements are turned into vignettes of empathy. One individual rises in glory; another climbs down graciously from the pedestal critics and filmmakers have put her on for delectation and consumption.
The rise of Sophia Loren from poverty, while still forbidding, is now seen in the context of a more sympathetic tale of Italian migrants coming to the New World. In that transition is this young girl who will be her own person in another country as this poor, little girl leaving her Naples for Rome to audition. Both display triumphs in personal psychology, with Nancy Kulik always looking for guidance in her own mixed heritage but elegantly, with some sophisticated naughtiness, looking to a woman on the silver screen—Italian, tempestuous, stereotyped like all those coming from the southern part of this society.
We know what Sophia Loren has done. She did not follow the herd. She also has asked the same question, What would I (as Sophia Loren, of course) do? She married a producer from her own country, a decision she made against living a life with Cary Grant. Loren has one solid reason for the marriage—she wanted to have a family. Loren, upon the advice of her doctor, stayed in bed for months, putting her career in the background, because she wanted to have a child. She would have two, Carlo and Edoardo, the latter a filmmaker.
Edoardo would direct his own mother in the film, The Life Ahead, as Madam Rosa, a former prostitute and a Holocaust survivor. Written by Romain Gary, Loren, in a sense, “continued” the character essayed by another thespian, Simone Signoret. One bonus of this docu is a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes of the shoot where Edoardo is strict with Loren in some scenes, and lovingly generous with his praises. Well, who would not be if your actress is Sophia Loren. But she is also his mom and, thus, we are almost eavesdropping with the director shouting, “Cut, Perfect!” Approaching Sophia Loren, Edoardo tells her, “Bravo, Mama.” He then leads her out of the set, holding her hand.
What is a docu involving Sophia Loren without a mention of her film, Two Women, made in 1961. Directed by Vittorio de Sica and produced by Carlo Ponti, who would become Loren’s husband, it would introduce her to the world audience.
How the docu inserts the footage from Two Women is sheer magic. Nancy is recalling incidents in her life as a mother to her four children, when the black-and-white footage from the film comes forth. The scene sears in our mind the horror of war, how our children and women are always at the mercy of violence instigated by men; it reminds us of the blinding performance from Sophia Loren, which gave her the Oscar for the Best Actress, the very first time it was given to a non-English speaking role.
How does one end an epic memory like this? Shall Nancy Kulik meet Sophia Loren to complete her journey as a mother/woman?
What Would Sophia Loren Do? is directed by Ross Kaufmann and edited by Keiko Deguchi and Hypatia Porter. Its producers are Artemis Rising Foundation and Red Light Films. It streams on Netflix.