Between the 1950s and the 1990s, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni appeared in over a dozen films together. Three of these — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), Marriage Italian Style (1964) and Sunflower (1970) — were directed by Vittorio De Sica, also the director behind Two Women (1960), for which Loren won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won an Oscar of its own, this one for Best Foreign Language Film. Though decidedly less intense than Two Women, it gave both Loren and Mastroianni the chance to play a variety of roles over the course of its three separate stories, each one named after Loren’s character in that particular segment.
In the first part, Adelina, Loren and Mastroianni are Adelina and Carmine Sbaratti, a poor couple living in the Forcella section of Naples with their young son. Carmine has been out of work since finishing his military service, so Adelina is the family’s sole breadwinner, peddling foreign cigarettes on the street along with countless other women doing the same thing. Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely legitimate enterprise. Having been caught selling contraband goods, Adelina owes the government over fifty thousand lire, a sum that she and Carmine can’t possibly afford. Prison, it seems, is unavoidable — but then she discovers a loophole. Because she’s currently pregnant with the couple’s second child, she won’t be incarcerated until after she’s given birth and had an additional six months to nurse the baby. A simple solution presents itself: As long as she’s either pregnant or nursing at all times, she doesn’t have to go to jail or pay the fine. And so the children accumulate…
Adelina is often farcical, but it has serious undertones. In a sense, it’s not terribly far removed from De Sica’s earlier neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), in that the characters are trapped by poverty and other adverse circumstances. While it’s never entirely clear whether Carmine is unemployed due to a lack of opportunities or a lack of ambition, it is implied that he’s illiterate, which can’t help matters. Whatever the case, Adelina must make do as best she can, even if that means breaking the law or embracing a highly short-sighted scheme to keep herself out of prison. It’s a vicious cycle: The more children she has, the longer she can remain free, but each new baby puts a larger and larger strain on the family’s already tight finances, not to mention Carmine’s frazzled nerves and, above all, the couple’s marriage.
Still, despite these darker elements, this segment is largely comedic and, at times, even heartwarming. Adelina may compete with her fellow cigarette sellers for business, but on the whole, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie in the Sbarattis’ neighborhood. Though nobody is especially well-off, they’re more than willing to help one another in any way they can, whether that means hiding furniture so that it can’t be repossessed or doing the math to figure out when Adelina needs to conceive again. It’s also evident that the love that brought Adelina and Carmine together in the first place hasn’t died out, easy though it is to forget that in the midst of their increasingly chaotic lives.
The second story, Anna, drops the actors into an entirely different milieu. This time, Loren plays Anna Molteni, the dissatisfied wife of a wealthy, extremely prominent Milanese businessman. Weary of her nonstop, high-profile lifestyle, she hopes to find salvation — or at least a change of pace — through Mastroianni’s character, a writer named Renzo whom she met the previous night. The two go for a drive in her Rolls-Royce, and the fundamental divide between them soon becomes abundantly clear.
Anna is, by far, the shortest of the film’s three segments and also the most subdued, though it’s not without its touches of humor. In a sharp change from her role in Adelina, Loren gets to play a glamorous, sophisticated woman, and one totally lacking in self-awareness. Much as she complains about the obligations that her affluence entails (a senator’s funeral, a committee meeting, an award ceremony for “wretched orphans”), much as she wants something different, she’s far more deeply entrenched in her world of money and privilege than she seems to realize. Her driving exemplifies this. Again and again, she nearly hits people or rear-ends the cars in front of her without appearing to notice, as if she owns the road and can do whatever she likes; everyone else is merely an inconvenience to her. “Why don’t they stay home in bed, these workers?” she wonders when she has to stop to let pedestrians cross in front of her.
Renzo, meanwhile, is a levelheaded, perceptive sort, a surrogate for the viewer. He’s attracted to Anna and curious about her lifestyle, but he’s also keenly aware that he’s out of his element. “I don’t know these cars. My limit is a Fiat 600,” he tells her. By the end of the story, brief as it is, he’s seen more than enough of Anna to grasp her true character; pity that she can’t do the same herself.
In the last segment, Mara, Loren plays a prostitute in Rome, high-class enough to pick and choose her clients and to afford her own apartment. Mara’s neighbor Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi), a young seminary student, is infatuated with her. Even though she conducts business in her home, he’s oblivious to her true profession; his grandmother (Tina Pica) isn’t, however, and when she insults Mara in front of Umberto, he becomes deeply offended and decides that he no longer wants to attend seminary. After the devastated grandmother explains to Mara that the family’s hopes are all pinned on the boy’s becoming a priest, Mara takes it upon herself to change his mind — but her methods don’t sit well with Augusto Rusconi (Mastroianni, naturally), a visitor from Bologna who wants to spend his few days in Rome making use of her services.
Hot-tempered yet kindhearted and sensitive, Mara shares traits with both Adelina and Anna. Like the former, she makes the best of her circumstances; like the latter, she longs for something more. As for Augusto, he’s essentially a sex-crazed man-child, enraptured by Mara (enough to want her all for himself, though not enough to marry her) and terrified of his father, who happens to be the Minister of Labor — quite different from either of Mastroianni’s other characters. That’s part of the fun of the film: watching Loren and Mastroianni take on these varied roles, seeing their personalities, appearances and relationship change from story to story. No matter which characters they’re playing at any given moment, their performances and chemistry help make Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow an enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking piece of entertainment.
This post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.