By Jane Hall
October 22, 1984 12:00 PM

On a sunny July afternoon in Rome she sweeps through the cool corridors of a 16th-century villa. Dressed in a khaki skirt and matching long-sleeved jacket, swinging generous hips that have never graced jogging shorts, she is a moveable feast of female beauty. Though she’s lived a mere half century, her noble-Roman profile and Neapolitan sensuality have made her more famous than many of her country’s ancient emperors. But today something is wrong. In those extraordinary eyes there is pain.

The lady is nursing a pulled shoulder muscle, which was injured the day before when she struggled to open a heavy door. Taking her place in an ornate dining room filled with extras who range from fashionable to Felliniesque, she continues in discomfort, holding her arm tightly against her body. But her mood brightens as a fair-skinned boy comes to sit beside her. Later, between takes, she instinctively reaches to smooth the boy’s hair. Co-stars from Cary Grant to Gregory Peck never got such treatment. “I have to play a double role,” says Sophia Loren, smiling. “I try to concentrate on my acting, but I can’t help watching him like a mother.”

Loren’s newest and favorite leading man is Edoardo Ponti, 11, her younger son from a once celebrated, sometimes troubled 18-year marriage to producer Carlo Ponti, 70. Her firstborn, Carlo Jr., 15, is at school in Geneva. Edoardo, however, is taking a glamorous break, making his acting debut as Loren’s son in NBC’s Aurora, which will air Oct. 22. For Sophia the importance of mothering makes this a pet project. “Everyone should want to play a mother, because there are so many sides to it,” she says. “There is a different light in the eyes of women who have children.” Sophia’s strong feelings of maternity were forged over a dozen years. After two miscarriages she succeeded in delivering her two sons safely only by spending most of the nine months of each pregnancy confined to bed, and as a result she is fiercely protective of both boys.

Aurora is a milestone for reasons other than working with Edoardo. For Sophia, who divides her time between Switzerland, Florida and California, the TV movie marks the first time the actress has worked in Italy since serving a 17-day jail sentence there on charges of tax evasion in 1982. With the paparazzi photographing her famous profile through cell bars, the imprisonment “left a scar,” Loren admits. “It’s the one experience I would not repeat. I would run instead.” Why did she do it? “I wanted to come back to see my mother,” Sophia says.

That’s about as sentimental as the actress gets about her homeland these days. She insists that she has no desire to return to Italy to live. “My sons are children of the world,” she says. If the Italian locations evoke emotions of the past, Sophia does not let them show. She has never taken her sons to Pozzuoli, the seaport village near Naples where she was born, though she and Edoardo filmed some of Aurora’s location scenes in Sorrento, only 30 miles away. “Not even adults understand how it was in a village where there was war and hunger,” Loren explains. “I don’t want my children to see an image of my childhood that is vacant and sad.”

Her attraction to Aurora, she says, was the poignancy of the story. Loren plays an unmarried woman who tries to convince two former lovers (played by Hill Street Blues‘ Daniel J. Travanti and French actor Philippe Noiret) that each is the father of her blind son, in order to extract money for an operation that could restore the boy’s sight. “Most of the scripts I receive exalt violence, but this was a tender story,” says Sophia. After accepting the role, she got Edoardo his part. “Ever since he was a little baby, Edoardo has been making up crazy stories with puppets, saying he wants to be an actor,” she explains. “I said to my husband, ‘Let’s see if the director will give him a screen test.’ ”

Not surprisingly, he did. Although her stepson, Alex, 33, is producing Aurora, with Carlo Sr. as adviser, Sophia insists that Edoardo was cast on his own merits and director Maurizio Ponzi goes along with the story. “He was not only physically right for the part but also already an actor,” Ponzi insists. “With his parents, he’s a natural—’the son of art,’ as we say in Italy.”

A seventh-grade student in the same private school as Carlo Jr., Edoardo says film is his favorite subject. On the set, when he is not in a scene, he explores the other side of the camera like a future director. The cameramen let Edoardo look through the lenses, and director Ponzi accords him the privilege of beginning several scenes with the crack of the clapboard. “When you love something, it’s not hard work,” Edoardo says of the tedious hours on the set. “I don’t get bored with it.”

During the midday break at the villa, Sophia rests in her trailer, but Edoardo eats under the trees with the rest of the crew, sharing a lunch of veal, peppers, pasta and espresso in paper cups. Fondly looking at Edoardo, whose mother he has worked with since the 1964 Marriage, Italian Style, crew member Gino Pasqualini confides, “Sophia is doing this one for the baby.”

To prepare for his role, Edoardo studied in the program for young people at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in Los Angeles in the summer of 1983. Over the last Christmas holidays he continued his education with Anna Strasberg, Lee’s widow, who is the current head of the theater. “I showed Edoardo how a blind person ‘sees’ with his other senses,” says Strasberg, a close family friend who has the supporting role of Philippe Noiret’s wife in the TV film. “One evening, when Edoardo was practicing in my home, Sophia slipped into the room. Without looking, Edoardo said, ‘That’s my mother. I can smell her perfume.’ ”

Carlo Jr. has no interest in show business, according to his mother. “He’s a shy dreamer who plays the piano beautifully and wants to be a classical musician. I’m discreet, like Carlo,” says Sophia. “I don’t like to expose myself off-camera, the way Edoardo does.” Loren is determined that her sons not be pampered. So she doesn’t treat her children with kid gloves? “Not even with iron gloves,” she says, laughing. Her children, she maintains, don’t think of her as a star. “We have a housekeeper, but I do housework myself, and I wear jeans at home. I don’t go around in plumes.”

The names of Loren’s children pop up frequently in conversation; the name of her husband does not. When a visitor mentions Carlo, there is a visible stiffening. The union between the fabled Loren and the short, bald Ponti has always seemed incongruous and has long been the subject of speculation. In recent years there have been repeated rumors of a rift, and suggestions that only their children have kept Sophia and Carlo together. Are they together still? “Why should it be the opposite?” she replies testily. “Why should everybody hear gossip and believe?”

The romance between Sophia and Carlo began when she was a 15-year-old starlet and Ponti was a successful (and married) movie producer. In 1957 Ponti got a quickie divorce and married Sophia by proxy in Mexico. Sophia writes in her best-selling 1979 autobiography, Living and Loving, that “it was the grandest, happiest moment of my life.” But the Catholic church did not recognize the divorce and the Vatican newspaper proclaimed them “public sinners.” Nine years later Ponti found a Continental solution: After becoming a French citizen, he got a French divorce from his first wife. In 1966 he remarried Sophia. The subsequent years have tempered Sophia’s feeling of marital elation. “Carlo and I have been together for 34 years,” she says. “It’s not something provisional anymore. It changes, for everyone changes. Maybe sometimes there are things more important than passion and love and this kind of thing. It grows, and you appreciate the qualities of the person you are with.”

The evolution of the marriage hasn’t gone unnoticed by friends. Observes Anna Strasberg, “It’s a different kind of love today.” Strasberg describes a scene of eerie quietude on the 40-acre Ponti ranch in Hidden Valley, 30 miles outside Los Angeles. “Carlo has planted roses on both sides of the old ranch house. He brings Sophia roses, and they sit there in the dining room looking at them.”

Their marital status has kept friends on guard and the European media on alert. For years the Italian press has hinted at Ponti’s dalliances with various women. In 1981 the French press suggested that Sophia was having an affair with Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu, then 54, a noted French physician and the father of three. It was said that Sophia’s affair of the heart was endangering her family life, since Ponti would never give her custody of the children in a divorce. Whatever the truth of those stories, the Pontis moved with the boys from Paris to Geneva in 1980.

Sophia and Ponti are often separated, which has fueled the speculation about a divorce, Italian style. Says one associate, “I wouldn’t even call it a marriage of convenience anymore, but a tense, armed truce. They spend as little time together as possible.” In this account, the children—and joint investments—are the only thing holding them together. Ponti refuses to respond. “I don’t want to answer stupid questions,” he snaps. Sophia maintains that their time apart is professional, not personal.

Like Sophia, Carlo warms more to the subject of his kids than his marriage. “I’m generally cool, but I have to say that Edoardo is terrific in the film,” he says. “Carlo half seriously asked his brother for his autograph.” Following completion of Aurora, the family spent a month’s vacation on their California ranch, where they also live during the Christmas holidays.

Sophia paints a picture of gentle domesticity in Geneva, where the family lives during the school year. In Geneva Sophia picks up the boys from school in the afternoon. “They’re always starving, because they don’t like the school lunches, so we eat very early, at 5:30,” she says. She acknowledges that she is “more with the children than their father is.” But, whatever their differences, Sophia speaks lovingly of her husband as a father. “If you saw us all together it might seem that I’m doing everything with the boys,” she says. “But whenever I need Carlo to speak to them, he’s there.”

In recent years Sophia has concentrated less on acting and more on lending her famous name to products (eyeglasses, a perfume named Sophia and a southern Florida resort called Williams Island). Her last theatrical film, Lina Wertmuller’s Blood Feud of 1980, did not catch fire at the box office. Loren hopes to play Maria Callas in a frequently postponed movie for Home Box Office. She was recently offered a role as Jane Wyman’s half sister in Falcon Crest, but Gina Lollobridgida took the part after the producers and Sophia’s agent could not agree on her fee. Of her absence from movies, Sophia says, “I worked so much when I was young, starting at 15. My first choice now is to be with the children.”

With a solidly researched beauty book, Women and Beauty, published last month, Sophia is seeking to establish herself as a role model for older women. “You shouldn’t drag yourself down because you turn 50,” says Sophia, who reached that milestone on Sept. 20. “If you have achieved something in life, age doesn’t scare you.” Has she helped forestall the aging process with a facelift? “I must have been a monster,” she says, laughing, “because they say I’ve had everything done. I would be scared to have a facelift, although someday I may. I wouldn’t want to be a caricature of myself.”

In a narrow hallway covered with velvet wallpaper and gold-leaf filigree, Sophia repeats her lines while the camera focuses on Edoardo. The actress gives her son his cue lovingly but with firm authority. In the scene being rehearsed, the blind child jumps forward to meet his “father,” Philippe Noiret, and deliberately trips over a bucket to wring sympathy from the man. Edoardo manages the choreography with ease. Repeating his steps for a publicity photo, Edoardo giggles and makes a child’s private joke out of creating an instant replay. “Daddy!” he says, jumping forward again. “Daddy! Daddy!” Sophia laughs along with her son. “Bellissimo, Edoardo,” she says, smiling indulgently.

The moment speaks of maternal contentment. But is she happy? “Happiness is a big word,” Sophia says in a quiet moment later. “In life you have your ups and downs. You can’t be happy all the time—then you wouldn’t know what happiness is. You have moments of joy, moments that you rest and enjoy what you do. I have these moments very often, which I consider a wonderful conquest.” And what of the bad times? Sophia frowns, stands up quickly and returns to the cameras to do something that makes her happy—another scene with her son.