Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) is a light-hearted series of three vignettes that are full of comedic moments, sexual overtones, and wonderful performances. Though the film is rightly billed as a comedy, its thematic current is based on some serious and important themes: namely, the identity of females and the power of sexuality, especially over men. Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni wonderfully convey these poignant concepts through completely independent but thematically-related shorts that travel all rungs of the social and economic ladder.
The Spinning Image notes, “Some have suggested each of the film's heroines embodies the spirit of her city. Just as De Sica adopts a subtly different style for each episode, so too does his leading lady adopt a radically different persona.”
The film’s first segment, “Adelina,” follows a woman determined to maintain constant pregnancy so she can utilize a legal loophole that permits pregnant women from going to jail. She’s been cited for selling illegal cigarettes and can’t afford the fine, so she forces her husband Carmine (Mastroianni) to keep her “expecting,” ensuring her problems remain stifled in utero. Carmine gets worn out by all this carnal work to the point where his health starts to falter. He’s poor, after all, and only eats a half a cup of soup per day. He doesn’t have the endurance to keep up with Adelina’s needs.
It causes Adelina agitation to the point where she nearly recruits one of Carmine’s friends to perform the task before a last-second change of heart reminds her of her vows of fidelity. A larger thematic text about marriage problems and devotion come into play, but at its core level, “Adelina” is about a sexually dominant woman overpowering her husband.
Smells Like Screen Spirit describes the vignette, saying, “Both actors are usually quite graceful and stunning; yet, in “Adelina”, Loren’s performance is amazingly gritty and vulgar while Mastroianni is ruffled and haggard. Their performances alone make “Adelina” a fairly unique production.”
The second vignette, “Anna,” is the thinnest of the three. It features Loren as a rich socialite on a drive in her husband’s new Rolls Royce. She picks up a new lover, Renzo, played by Mastroianni, and the two set off on a jaunt down the road. Completely oblivious to everyone around her, she repeatedly bumps into other cars with wanton disregard, eventually hanging over the wheel to Renzo (who only drives a Fiat). She talks about abandoning her life of luxury because she’s so bored, and how Renzo’s humility and emotion can change her life for good. He’s completely enamored with her, obviously willing to do whatever she says.
The truth is Anna is shallow and terrible. She’s selfish and spiteful, only interested in herself. She knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get it. When a boy appears in the street and Renzo swerves to avoid killing him, he crashes the car. Anna isn’t concerned with what Renzo did or the way he protected boy, only the now-dented automobile that represents her true passion. Ditched along the side of the road, the vignette ends with Anna abandoning Renzo and driving off in another man’s car, likely to repeat her musings about love and romance to someone more fitting.
The film’s final scene, “Mara,” is the most outward about its themes of female identity and sex. Mara is a Roman prostitute with a devout side, bouncing between her sexual appetite and fitting in with traditional society. As DVDTalk notes, “This portion of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow also goes much deeper than her cleavage--De Sica and Zavattini are crafting a vision of a near-future where young and old, sacred and profane, can find common ground, and when we can recognize that women steer families and society. (Adelina was very much in charge in the first story, as well.) Class distinctions dissipate: the prostitute makes her own money, and more than anyone can imagine, while the son of a rich man has never really grown up or carved his own path. (Indeed, there is a kind of impotence, both literal and metaphorical, evident in all of Mastroianni's characters.) For as comical as the whole thing is, "Mara" deftly sews up all the themes of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with some very clever stitching.”
It’s not just Loren and Mastroianni in “Mara,” there’s a second man in the form of the teenage seminary student Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi) who lives next door. Baffled by Mara’s beauty, he decides to quit the vocation. The grandparents he lives with are furious, condemning Mara a devil, until the grandmother pays Mara a visit and realizes beneath the prostitute exists a humble and honest person. Meanwhile, Mastroianni’s Augusto Rusconi character is in town for a short while and humorously finds his sexual needs blocked at every turn. Each of the men in the scene are vying for the sexual attention of Mara, while she is more concerned with the moral ramifications of swaying Umberto from his vows, and the effect of that on her soul. It’s the funniest and most profound segment of the film, and the one for which the overall piece is most known.
Smells Like Screen Spirit sums up the film, saying, “What Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow does well is provide the audience with women-centered stories in which Loren’s character always maintains complete control of the action. Sex is directly utilized as a tool for Adelina and Mara’s power — and it could be argued that it is indirectly being used as a tool for power by Anna as well — while Mastroianni’s characters are all weakened, if not hammered into submission, by Loren’s feminine wiles.”
The various settings and scenarios within the film are great backdrops for De Sica to tell these humorous stories about everyday realities. The message may frequently come across as crass as something to the tune of “women can make men do anything when sex is on the line,” but there’s an often accurate validity to that takeaway. Perhaps that’s what makes this such a watchable and ageless film, even 50+ years later.