“Listen to your mother” is generally considered good advice. “Hire your mother,” less so. Yet things work differently in the film industry, especially if your mom is living legend Sophia Loren. Which is why, across two features and one short, Edoardo Ponti has walked the uneasy tightrope of director and son, trading the unparalleled star power of Loren for an unusual on-set family/collaborator dynamic.
To mark the release of the pair’s latest project, the Netflix drama The Life Ahead, which stars Loren as a Holocaust survivor forging an unlikely friendship with a Senegalese 12-year-old, The Globe and Mail spoke with Ponti about all things mama.
What was it about Romain Gary’s novel, The Life Before Us, that compelled you to adapt the work?
It was a novel that has been on my proverbial nightstand forever; well, it was one of two works. The first, Jean Cocteau’s Human Voice, which we made as a short film, and this. There were two aspects of Romain’s novel that caught my eye. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of love and friendship between two people who couldn’t be more different on the surface. And I’ve always appreciated how Romain told his story through the point of view of this 12-year-old immigrant boy. To be able to live a life through the eyes of another, I found that very powerful.
So there was no hesitation in making it despite there already being two adaptations, including the Oscar-winning Madame Rosa?
No, because when you fall in love with something you don’t think of the obstacles. My desire to do this was, with my mother and hopefully in a fresh way, was stronger than anything.
You’re no stranger to working with your mother, but this was her first leading feature-film role in more than a decade. Was there any coaxing her into it?
My mother hadn’t made a movie in 10 years because she wanted to find the right role, a role that was challenging for her, that inspired her. When she was presented with this, it was an irresistible temptation. Madame Rosa is one of the great characters of modern literature. But in anything that she does, she’s always fraught with anxiety. It was about making sure that her confidence level was up, that was she was up to the task.
What is it like splitting your role between a director serving the story, and a son trying to support his mother?
What matters the most is that we have the same objective, and we’re both in the service of the movie and making sure we hit the notes of each scene in the most authentic way. What’s extraordinary working with her is how seamless the process is. We both have the same objectives, and we never exploit the label of son and mother to get what we want. And she appreciates how hard I push her. I know where she can go emotionally, and she allows me to get there. At 86 years old, she’s willing to give it her absolute all to serve the story.
Has your relationship, both on and off the set, changed since you’ve started collaborating?
We’re aware of each other’s processes and more comfortable with each other’s expectations. I know she approaches a role with a certain insecurity, so my job as a director is to make her feel comfortable and confident. I’m not interested in presenting Sophia Loren as the icon or diva. I’m interested in presenting the actress who I know, who raised me. And she knows that.
Growing up, did you have the opportunity to see her interact with other filmmakers?
Not as much as you’d expect. We led quite a normal life. We were in classrooms, not on sets. But if a shoot happened to coincide with our summer holidays, then of course I’d be there. She is very much a director’s actor. She wants to believe in the director, and is not antagonistic. If you get her to a “yes,” then you will have at your disposal the full talent, heart and soul of Sophia Loren.
The Life Ahead is available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 13
This interview has been condensed and edited
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