“I am not Italian, I’m Neapolitan: it’s different.” This is what Sophia Loren had to say in an interview given just before her Academy Tribute, on the 4th of March 2011. On another occasion, while speaking about her grandchildren, she said: “I want to teach them Neapolitan. Even if they speak Hungarian, French, English, they must get me when I speak Neapolitan.” In 2009, she received Naples’ honorary citizenship, complete with a scroll signed by the mayor, because she represented “the body, the heart and the mind of Naples” around the world. On that day she said, filled with emotion: “As soon as I got here, while I walked these beloved streets for the umpteenth time, streets that remind me of my childhood, my teenage years, my first movies, the pizza in L’Oro di Napoli, in brief, the early years of my life and career, I tried to commit them to my memory meter by meter, to bring them with me for ever.” Last week, during the press conference to present her next movie, La Vita Davanti a Sé, to which L’Italo-Americano participated, too, she stressed it once more: “I am 1000% Neapolitan and I will never forget that. Even today, if I sing a song, I sing it in Neapolitan, without a doubt. Naples is my heart and it’s been my fortune. Because that’s where I met De Sica, to whom I owe the luck of my life.”
And it is always to Naples that her memories, nostalgia and thoughts fly. Even when filming her second-born Edoardo’s movie in Bari, on the other side of the peninsula along the Adriatic, some 300 km from Naples, she only had eyes for her city. In the small alleys of Apulia, with their people, warmth and folklore, she declares candidly she found something of “her” beloved Naples, the place where her heart lies: “I know it was Bari, but the sea, the scents, the people…” Everything would make her think of home.
Not only she makes no secret of her origins, she proudly display them.
This wonderful actress who, in 1999, entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most awarded ever, and is an icon of Italian cinema in the world, has always considered her origins, her deeply Neapolitan roots, a distinctive trait of her personality.
And of her beauty, we could add. Because our roots hold within an incredibly heavy, incredibly rich cultural baggage that leaves marks in the way we speak and we behave, in our values and attitudes towards life; in the way we socialize, in our habits and in the way we eat (indeed, Sophia also wrote two books dedicated to traditional Neapolitan cuisine).
Of her Neapolitan soul, which she portrayed on the silver screen so many times, she became an ambassador. She offered a glimpse into Neapolitan society to the world, a glimpse into the culture and traditions of the South. She helped establish a canon, take a snapshot of Neapolitan customs; she portrays the psychology and the human, noisy, passionate and true fabric of the Napoletani.
In truth, she did the same with her being Italian.
In 1991, she received the Academy Award to her career. By then, she had been living in LA for years; her filmography would have made envious any Hollywood diva, just like her many collaborations with the greatest artists of her time (Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, John Wayne and Anthony Quinn, just to name a few). With them, she portrayed characters that had nothing to do with a stereotyped, almost caricatural, idea of Italianità. Well, in that occasion, filled with emotions and face to face with such a “marvelous moment” of her life, she concluded her acknowledgments in Italian, with a simple “thank you, America.” For all the Italian Americans who were watching her, for all the Italians who were rejoicing with her and who, for a long time, had considered her a piece of Italian culture, it was a choral thank you.
For some, the American Dream became a reality, just like it happened to her. Some managed to travel back home every time they saw her on the screen; many understood that regardless to where you came from, even if you grew up during the war and got to know poverty, sorrow and hunger, all was possible: if you have a talent, if you work hard, you can achieve anything.
Today, of course, these words could and should be seen also in light of the American Elections, which, albeit with different tones, did dominate Italy’s interest for the past week. If Sophia Loren is recognized as one of the most important actresses of world cinema, and the American Film Institute placed her at number 21 of the most influential and famous actresses of all times, we cannot forget that, for the first time, the White House will have an Italian American First Lady. Just like Sophia, she never made a secret of her origins. Jill Tracy Jacobs — because her grandfather, upon arriving to America, had anglicized his Sicilian surname, Giacoppa — often told about growing up Italian-American, with Sunday lunches at her grandparents: “Spaghetti, meatballs, ribs. The house always smelled of oregano, basil, fresh tomatoes and garlic. I remember grandpa would give to us all toasted Italian bread and would say ‘finire a tarallucci e vino,’ which means differences don’t really matter, we always finish our dinners as a family. I have wonderful memories of the days spent in the kitchen with my grandmother, my mother and my four sisters. It was in that home I made my first tomato sauce.”