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Venice Film Festival

Queen of the Lido

After 44 years, Sophia Loren returns to Venice festival


At a weekend reception held at the luxurious Excelsior Hotel on Venice's Lido--the nerve center of the world's oldest film festival--Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, and two other senior Hollywood figures huddled in a corner, engaged in a lively debate.

Their discussion, however, did not involve deals or strategies to combat European quotas for American movies--or even the festival's films. The topic was Sophia Loren's frocks.

Opinion was divided sharply over which Armani outfit--an off-the-shoulder black chiffon ruffle displaying the star's best assets worn at the presentation of a life achievement award or the fuchsia extravaganza of the previous evening, offsetting her coloring--was more becoming. One opined that the cream linen day dress couldn't be discounted. Another nostalgically recalled a bygone movie era of more Loren contours and less dress, long before the collaboration between the contemporary Italian designer and star. The trio's appreciation of design minutiae was astounding.

Loren last visited this event in 1958, winning best actress for Martin Ritt's "Black Orchid." That year, when William Holden first encountered the young starlet, he gushed, "I never saw so much woman coming at me in my entire life." More than four decades later, the 67-year-old Loren apparently still has the same effect.

Much to the dissatisfaction of Venetians, Loren has not returned to the city except to shoot Vittorio de Sica's last film, "The Voyage" (1974), opposite Richard Burton. Numerous attempts to lure her to the festival to accept a life achievement award have failed, until now. This elusiveness has created an even greater aura around the icon, who resides in Switzerland. And greater demand.

So her return as an honoree and star of younger son Eduardo Ponti's debut feature, "Between Strangers," has been hailed as a second coming, a phenomenon that taps her dual appeal: as a screen goddess and family role model.

Although critical reaction has been mixed to the Italian-Canadian co-production inspired by the work of Ponti's idol, Krysztof Kieslowski, public and press appetite for Loren has been voracious.

Even though the ambitious film, which interweaves the stories of three women of different generations facing life crossroads, opens in Italy on Sept. 13, the half dozen public festival screenings quickly sold out. Because of public demand, an extra one is scheduled for Friday before the print's departure for the Toronto Film Festival.

At its world premiere gala here, Loren received a rapturous eight-minute standing ovation.

Stunning in a vibrant red top and matching neck scarf offset by elegant beige linen pants, Loren greeted a reporter at her hotel room the morning after the gala. The color, combined with her auburn hair and olive skin, lights up the room. If only Valenti and company could see this. Despite a very late night, she shows no visible signs of weariness. Undoubtedly, accustomed as she is to displays of public affection, she's still buoyed by the previous night's outpouring.

"I really felt moved to see people express such emotion," she says. "You start to think 'Do I really deserve this?' But then I erased the thought because I wanted to enjoy the moment and just go with it.

"I've always had a close relationship with my public, but occasions like this really make you realize how much you become a part of people's lives." She says this with quiet confidence, candor rather than hubris. "Maybe they like your work or the way you lead your life; maybe it's a special chemistry. But it's difficult not to feel elated."

Close up, Loren's skin and eyes bear none of the obvious stretched-perfect lack of elasticity of cosmetic surgery. She has repeatedly denied going under the knife, and without the trademark tinted glasses, her green eyes heavily etched in kohl are piercingly direct. Her appearance and poise bear a marked contrast to her "Between Strangers" persona, Olivia, an unfulfilled mature woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a disabled, bitter and controlling husband (Pete Postlethwaite). Drably dressed in oversize dresses and cardigans, hair flat and graying, eyes heavily wrinkled, the character is stripped to the bare, fragile essentials. For an aging actress whose career was launched by a beauty contest, it's a brave outing.

In a moment of vanity, she points out that it took 2 1/2 hours of makeup to prepare her for each day's shoot. The physical accouterments dismissed, the mental and emotional transformation surely must have presented a huge stretch.

"I didn't always have an easy life," Loren replies. "Those early impressionable years were tough.... All this leaves a mark inside of yourself. I've been fortunate to overcome this bitterness and traumas. But my nature is both dramatic and optimistic," she says. "It's a mix of both, so when I have these kind of roles, I let go this internal baggage and put it there at the disposal of whoever wants to use it."

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