What Would Sophia Loren Do? Review: Look to the Stars

Doc playfully recounts the experiences of two women united by the power of film

5 mins read

What Would Sophia Loren Do?
(USA, 32 min.)
Dir. Ross Kauffman

This is a story of two women. Vincenza “Nancy” Kulik is an 82-year-old Italian-American grandmother living in New Jersey. Sophia Loren is an 86-year-old Italian film icon and grandmother. One might not have heard of the former, but the latter is one of the most recognizable stars worldwide.

Loren might have four grandchildren in her family proper, but as one of the cinema’s first true international superstars—certainly the one remaining icon with the most longevity—she is an unofficial mother and grandmother to many. Nancy looks up to Loren and recalls seeing in the strong characters of films like Two Women, Marriage, Italian Style, and Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow a role model for Italian motherhood. The short doc What Would Sophia Loren Do? explores the question that Nancy often asked herself and her kids, whether they suggested switching to whole-wheat pasta or asked to spend the night with friends. With heart and humour, the film unpacks the power that stars hold and the timeless grace of actors like Loren who let audiences worldwide see their culture depicted onscreen.

Directed by Oscar winner Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and executive produced by Kulik’s daughter, Regina Scully (The Truffle Hunters), What Would Sophia Loren Do? playfully unpacks the lives of two seemingly different women that are linked by the power of movies. The film also serves as a fine companion piece to Loren’s Netflix drama The Life Ahead as both films prove the Italian actress’s enduring appeal. Loren appears in the doc in new interviews, but yields the spotlight to Nancy as the animated matriarch recounts the parallel journeys she had as a mother and as a fan seeing Loren raise children onscreen.

The film finds parallels in both stories as Kulik and Loren encountered the inevitable heartaches that come with age. Kulik recalls finding comfort in Loren’s strength following the death of her son, Dominic, in 2016, using the Italian stars perseverance in her film roles, as well as her ability to move forward following the death of her husband, film producer Carlo Ponti, in 2007. However, it’s primarily a delightful film-on-film odyssey about the role that star personas play in our daily lives.

Kulik reflects upon the sight of this voluptuous and shapely Italian gracing the screen at a young age in kitchen-sink dramas. Standing out amid the post-war poverty and realism that made the cinema Italiano so poetic, Loren’s figure challenged the images of femininity and motherhood that audiences generally saw in Hollywood fare. What Would Sophia Loren Do? pays special care to Loren’s Oscar-winning performance in Two Women, which shakes Kulik to this day. A sensitively cut sequence observes Kulik as she plays the role of film critic, analysing Loren’s devastating performance and considering it through the lens of a woman and mother. (The scene makes her one of few women to review the film, even in 2021.)

It’s equally refreshing to hear Kulik and Loren recount the night of the Academy Awards in which the actress made history as the first performing to win for a foreign language film. Loren laughs that she didn’t attend the ceremony, assuming like many non-American performers still do, that she had little chance of winning. As the conversation about representation continues in the years of #OscarsSoWhite, the film’s a testament to stars like Loren who let audiences see diverse cultures and experiences reflected onscreen. The touching finale is proof that sometimes it really is best to meet one’s heroes—but those wondering about Loren’s stance on whole wheat noodles might have to Sophia themselves.

What Would Sophia Loren Do? debuts on Netflix Jan. 15.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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