Edoardo Ponti on directing his mother Sophia Loren in ‘The Life Ahead’: ‘I want to give her the ability to be complete herself’

John Huston directed his father Walter to an Oscar in 1948 for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and his daughter Anjelica to one in 1985 for “Prizzi’s Honor.” Edoardo Ponti, 47, could well do the same for his mother, Sophia Loren, who shines in the acclaimed new Netflix drama “The Life Ahead.”

Ponti, the youngest of Loren’s two sons with her late husband, producer Carlo Ponti, is a graduate for USC School of Cinematic Arts and worked as an assistant with such directors as Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Altman. He first directed his mother in his 2002 debut “Between Strangers.” Loren won the David di Donatello Award for their 2014 collaboration on “The Human Voice” based Jean Cocteau’s 1930 one-act play “The Human Voice.”

For “The Life Ahead,” Ponti and Ugo Chiti adapted Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us,” which was also the source of the Oscar-winning 1977 French drama “Madame Rosa,” starring Simone Signoret. In this new version,  Madame Rosa (Loren) is a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor haunted by memories of World War II, who takes care of the children of prostitutes in Naples including an unruly Senegalese immigrant named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye).

Ponti recently did a zoom Q&A with the Cinematic Arts school director of programming and special events Alessandro Ago. Gary’s book, noted Ponti, had long been on his “proverbial nightstand. Something that had accompanied me for many, many years. I was very, very drawn and inspired by … the story of love and friendship between two people, Madame Rosa and Mom.” The two are just opposite side of the same coin. “They were both raised in the streets without families and survivors defined by pain, by suffering, but also hope and resilience. Romain Gary told the story through the point of view of this 12-year-old immigrant. I found that very powerful, to be able to look at the world, through the point of view of this child.”

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His mother, who hadn’t made a feature since 2009’s “Nine,” had been waiting for the past decade for a project that meant something to her and more importantly, challenged her. “We worked so well together,” said Ponti.  “Our rapport as creative partnership is so strong.  We have the same objectives. So, we jumped at the opportunity of doing this together.”

Though the novel and “Madame Rosa” takes place in 1970s France, Ponti and Chiti moved the Italian-language version to Naples, near where Loren was raised, and set it contemporary times. “The fortunate and unfortunate thing is that the themes that the novel deals with — immigration, inclusion, prejudice — unfortunately are still extremely currently today,” noted Ponti.

Though Loren has been making English-language films since her first Hollywood production, 1957’s “Boy on a Dolphin,” she’s given her best performances such as in “Two Women” and “The Life Ahead” in her native tongue. “When I work with my mother, I want to give her the ability to be complete herself,” Ponti explained. “I’m not interest so much in the Sophia written with a ph, but Sofia written with a f. These are truly her roots because when my mother speaks her native Neapolitan language, a lot of things happen.”

The most authentic part of her emerges, said Ponti. “But what is very important is that Neapolitan is a dialect not born in the voice but born in the belly. So, her whole voice drops an octave and naturally becomes grittier. She naturally becomes more street. She naturally becomes more of the character just by the switch of the language. That was very important for the building of her character-it opens up a whole possibility of body language, expressions and silences she would really only do if she were to speak Neapolitan because she becomes her most authentic self.”

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Though it was Loren’s 98th film and Gueye’s first, Ponti discovered they were very similar in terms of their creative fabric, their sense of duty, preparedness, learning their lines and hitting their marks. That’s why they hit it off.” He also wanted to make sure that Gueye didn’t get nervous working with such an icon as Loren. “I needed to demystify that,” Ponti noted. “I needed to be able to have him see my mother the way I see her. So, what we did during the whole shoot is we all lived together, so Ibrahima would see my mother in the morning, without makeup, watching TV.” Sometimes he’d even find the two just sitting in the bench in their backyard doing nothing “just staring and just being together. They really created that bond.”

Ponti didn’t coddle his mother on the set. “I’m much harder on her because I know her so well,” he admitted. “So, I know when she gives me 50%. I know when she gives me 100 % and I will not settle for anything less than a 100%. Because if we do a movie together, it has to be unique, it has to be special. We want to show the world the best of Sophia.”

And in the case of “The Life Ahead,” the best of Sofia.

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