The Pride and the Passion

Poster - Pride and the Passion, The_05Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren in Napoleonic era Spain. The two men are vying for the woman, butting heads for most of the picture. Wait, there’s more. A big cannon. Okay, that’s it.

I rarely pass up an opportunity to watch Cary Grant, and this epic’s notorious because of the romance that developed between Grant and Loren in the course of filming it. Grant’s marriage to Betsy Drake was dissolving; Loren was waiting for Carlo Ponti to divorce his wife. “Both of us soon realized that the feelings between us were beginning to be laced with love — and we were scared.” In her forthcoming memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Loren admits that she was torn:

I knew that my place was next to Carlo — he was my safe harbor, even though I was still waiting for him to make a decision about our lives; our furtive relationship couldn’t go on much longer. At the same time, it was hard to resist the magnetism of a man like Cary, who said he was willing to give up everything for me. On our last night, he invited me out, looking more solemn than usual. Inside, I was afraid.

There was a gorgeous sunset outside as he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said simply: “Will you marry me?” My words got caught in my throat. I was like an actress in a movie who’s forgotten her lines.

I felt so small in the face of this impossible decision. “Cary, dear, I need time,” I whispered breathlessly.

He understood. And he deflected my reply with a light touch of humor: “Why don’t we get married first, and then think about it?”

Grant seems to have behaved like a gentleman, and although Loren chose Ponti in the end, the two remained close. “In a treasure trove of memories that I keep in a box, there are letters and notes in Cary’s elegant, joyful handwriting that still fill me with tenderness,” she writes, “they speak to me of a fondness that, although it changed over time, never waned.”

You can get a sense of the heat on the set of The Pride and the Passion from this flamenco scene:

Two Women

The pairing of Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo doesn’t work; their scenes together don’t simmer the way you want them to, and the fault is Belmondo’s.  His character, a coddled only son with vaguely left-wing politics (Belmondo wearing glasses and pretending to be an intellectual?  Talk about playing against type!), falls in love with Loren’s character.  She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.  A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.

“Two Women” is set in the countryside around Rome in the last months of World War II. Loren’s character, Cesira, escaped the impoverished village in Ciociaria, the region of central Italy where she was born, by marrying an older man.  Now widowed, she owns a grocery in Rome and is raising her teenage daughter alone.  With the city under bombardment by the Allies, mother and daughter flee the city and return to Ciociaria, where they encounter Belmondo’s character, Michele.  He mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are Fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers.

Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture.  But that’s what makes it so powerful.  Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning.  War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s.  Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor?  Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.

Loren conveys all of this in a way that is so genuine!  Credit also goes to Alberto Moravia, the famous Italian writer whose novels spawned many fine films.  His own experiences living near Ciociaria in Central Italy after he and his wife fled the bombing in Rome inspired the book, which Vittorio de Sica faithfully adapted for the screen.  All around, a tour de force that doesn’t glamorize an ugly time.

(31 March 2011)