De Sica and His Dynamic Duo Do What They Do Best: Close-Up on "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow"

Vittorio de Sica, Sophia Loren, and Marcello Mastroianni: A cinematic trio made in heaven.
Jeremy Carr

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Vittorio de Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) is playing January 8 - February 6, 2017 in the United States.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), winner of the 1965 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a trio of stories directed by Vittorio De Sica in the omnibus fashion so popular at the time (just the year prior, he had contributed to the similarly structured Boccaccio ‘70, alongside Federico Fellini, Mario Monicelli, and Luchino Visconti). Spearheaded by international super-producer Carlo Ponti—helping to ensure global distribution and award-worthy prestige—the film is, first and foremost, a collaborative compendium of what partially defined the popular perception of its versatile director and its two leads, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

The first short, “Adelina,” was written by Eduardo De Filippo and Isabella Quarantotti, the second, “Anna,” by Bella Billa, Lorenza Zanuso, and one of Italian neorealism’s founding fathers, Cesare Zavattini, and the third, “Mara,” came from Zavattini alone. Despite his involvement in the latter segments, it is the first that resonates most with the post-war sensibility Zavattini, as much as anyone, helped to form for the screen. Similarly, while films like Two Women (1960) showed De Sica still with his own roots planted in the coarse terrain of Italian neorealism, he had also made several efforts to distance himself from seminal works like Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Umberto D. (1952). Still, try as they might, the milieu of poverty and war-torn living often seemed inescapable. Indeed, such an environment, though certainly without the typically corresponding despair, is resurrected in “Adelina,” the delightful opening third of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.  

Here, an exuberant Loren plays Adelina Sbaratti, a boisterous young woman who illegally hawks cigarettes on the street. Facing financial punishment and jail time for her unlawful transactions, she stumbles upon a legal exemption for pregnant women. Apparently, the powers that be cannot arrest one with child until six months after delivery. The epiphany of sovereignty through sustained offspring—which sets up a humorous conceit that may or may not have any grounding in actual law—means Adelina and her initially acquiescent husband, Carmine (Mastroianni), must keep up the child-rearing for as long as it takes. “Children are a wonderful thing,” says family friend Pasquale (Aldo Giuffrè), who is soon primed to make a move on the perpetual mother-to-be. As it turns out, they are also valuable in a pinch.

Carmine first appears with a carefree, confident charm, a characterization ideal for Mastroianni’s gifts as a self-assured leading man. Soon, however, this wise-guy grows weary from the ever-increasing litter of boys and girls (and the exertion it takes to make them), ultimately retreating to his mother’s equally chaotic residence in order to get some rest. While Adelina has “blossomed like a rose”—after having seven children, she comments on her still fine physical condition, and she’s not joking—Carmine arrives at a point where her tantalizing pillow pats trigger instant distress. Everything so far is played for unequivocal laughs, though concern creeps into the picture (in a still comical fashion) when the ceaseless reproduction becomes overwhelming for the exhausted father. He recognizes the benefits of the increasing brood, and surely “the will is there,” but their reproductive luck eventually runs out.

In “Adelina,” Loren is fiercely vibrant at all times, while Mastroianni’s swaggering stud soon devolves into an anxious mess. And through it all, the town of Forcella functions as an animated constant, teeming with regional authenticity, from a communal calendar based on when certain produce is in season, to the incessant street singing, selling, and socializing. The surroundings are comprised of cramped, dilapidated buildings (the growing Sbaratti household is set to rupture its one-room domicile), and the soiled, tattered clothing are clear indications of persistent hardship. But the tone of “Adelina” is seldom subdued under the weight of these socioeconomic conditions. On the contrary, when the authorities come along to repossess the Sbaratti family furniture, the citizenry jointly stick it to the money men and the law, setting up an amusingly endearing class conflict and collaboration; later, a parade of children triumphantly chant the legal loophole and the town’s merchants happily add on supplemental taxes to help pay for Adelina’s fine. Emblematic of what became known as “rosy neorealism,” this opening vignette revels in the appeal of a perky and perseverant proletariat, where poverty never gets in the way of family and community. 

All three episodes in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow generally take place in or around single locations, and for the visual realization of these somewhat limited settings, production designer Ezio Frigerio (his second film) and the great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno deserve due recognition. They, with De Sica, do excellent work in these varying locales, imbuing in each distinct and frequently integral elements of character or cultural detail. The biggest visual challenge in terms of creatively navigating these restricted areas emerges with the film’s lackluster second segment, the mostly unremarkable “Anna.” Though De Sica was never one to be overly stylish, “Anna” does have an unusually self-conscious opening, as De Sica and Rotunno begin filming from the backseat of the titular driver’s car (Loren’s face unseen for several minutes) while she speeds recklessly through the streets, muttering and complaining to herself about assorted social commitments: concerts, meetings with senators, hairdressers, etc. As evinced by these ostentatious concerns and by the primary compact placement of “Anna”—a luxurious Rolls-Royce—this wealthy world of suits, furs, and fancy cars could not be further from the world of “Adelina” or “Mara” to follow. Disappointingly, the same could also be said for its level of satisfaction.

By necessity given the situation of the story, and because De Sica chose to have the camera mostly in, or hovering around, a car, there is in “Anna” a larger sense of scenic movement than either “Adelina” or “Mara,” even if the key drama remains intimately, and not that interestingly, confined. Basically a 15-minute car ride with Anna and her lover, Renzo (Mastroianni), “Anna” differs markedly in tone from its surrounding parts, at least until its conclusion. Much like the installment itself, Loren’s Anna is cold and cruel, her exquisitely designed automobile an austere, operative status-symbol and a fitting representation of control, order, and refinement. These very traits are what, for a time, drag down this short. Everything is superficially appropriate, well-crafted and enacted, but there is no joy. Once the vehicular icon of pretentious prosperity is damaged, though, it breaks Anna’s composure, brings Renzo to life (he’s actually the one who crashes the car), and shatters the insipid rigidity of the chapter. 

One could argue that Loren’s performance here broadens her range somewhat, as she plays a fairly unlikable protagonist at odds with Mastroianni’s comparatively passive Renzo, who easily becomes the more sympathetic character. Perhaps. But given the chapter names in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, it should be obvious either way that the film as a whole, if it is anything, is a showcase for the inimitable actress, no matter how she plays whoever she plays. Regardless of the situation or the persona, Sophia Loren is, quite simply, radiant. And even more than in the first two episodes, which still celebrate her vitality and physicality a good deal, “Mara” becomes a rather obviously alluring exhibit for the star. As a congenial prostitute, she is bright and bubbly, as pleasantly effervescent as a rich Italian soda. Among other superlatives, she is, as Mastroianni’s childlike Augusto declares, “queen…empress…sultaness.”

Behind his adoration is Mara’s (and Loren’s) buoyant sexuality. It’s enough to keep Augusto coming back for more and it’s enough to turn the life of a neighboring young man upside down. Gianni Ridolfi plays a budding priest staying with his grandparents, who, much to his appreciation and their initial chagrin, happen to reside next door to this tempting vixen. While this poor kid is just trying to be good, he struggles against Mara’s naturally potent temptations. A sweetly sensual tenderness develops between she and the boy, though grandmother most certainly does not approve (not right away). So when it is decided that getting him off to seminary is priority number one, Mara strikes a divine bargain to increase the chances of success. To the displeasure of the randy Augusto, she will temporarily give up sex to certify his departure. Even when all seems to be accomplished, and Mara begins a tantalizing striptease, driving the giddy Augusto crazy, she stays true to her word and brings everything to a hilariously anticlimactic halt. All involved in “Mara” know exactly what they’re doing with this scene and this episode. It’s an unabashed presentation of Loren in all of her glory, with no pretense for higher significance. The deliberate devotion to her magnetic screen presence is partly why this concluding number is easily Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’s most iconic sequence.  

Reflecting De Sica’s charm and his own entertaining personality, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow has an agreeable lightness, showing what an astute comic artist the filmmaker could be, beyond the prevalent pigeonhole of neorealism. Save for that briefly bland midsection, the movie is also perhaps the finest example of how he, Loren, and Mastroianni could brilliantly influence one another time and again. Be it a film with just the two stars (A Special Day [1977]), De Sica as director with Loren alone (Two Women, the picture that garnered her an Academy Award), a film featuring the three solely as actors (De Sica and Mastroianni in a film like The Bigamist [1956], or all three in Alessandro Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad [1954]), what one comes away with, especially after viewing Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, is that this is truly a cinematic trio made in heaven. Or in Italy. 

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