Set across three cities in Italy, this classic comedy follows the romantic complications endured by three sets of lovers, each played by Italian cinema's greatest screen couple. In the first episode, Adelina (Sophia Loren) sells black market cigarettes on the streets of Naples to support her unemployed husband, Carmine (Marcello Mastroianni). Caught in the act, Adelina faces some serious jail time until she learns she can avoid prison so long as she is pregnant. Seven years and seven children later, Carmine is too exhausted to even take a crack at conceiving one more time, leaving his poor wife bound for jail unless the resourceful Neapolitan citizens can find some way to ensure a happy ending.
Part two concerns Anna (Loren again), a bored socialite who cruises around Milan in a stylish Rolls Royce, eyeing the local men. With her wealthy husband away, Anna enters into an affair with a writer (Mastroianni). He is suitably enamoured with his glamorous girlfriend, until a near fatal car crash unmasks an unpleasant side to her character.
Story three involves Mara (Loren), a beautiful call girl entertaining her favourite client, businessman Augusto Rusconi (Mastroianni) at her apartment in Rome. She strikes up a touching friendship with Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi), a young man studying to become a priest, much to the displeasure of his grumpy grandmother (Tina Pica). When Umberto suddenly announces he intends to abandon the priesthood and run away with Mara, the old woman discovers the call girl is a kind-hearted and selfless soul. Mara vows she will abstain from sex, and sacrifice her earnings, for one week so she can convince Umberto to rejoin the church. Her decision comes as quite a surprise to the sex-starved Augusto.
For Vittorio De Sica, the man behind Bicycle Thieves (1948), to make such a frothy and frivolous film felt to some like a betrayal of the principles of Italian Neo-realism. However, aside from being embraced by audiences the world over and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is a snappy, satirical comedy that reveals about the Italian character both from the upper and lower echelons of society. Over the course of three lively, sexy, funny anecdotes, De Sica touches on issues like the absurd judicial system (jails crowded with women imprisoned for frivolous offences and now raising kids behind bars), bourgeois hypocrisy, Catholic guilt, and working class camaraderie in the face of bureaucratic indifference.
The film also offers a subversive study of macho Italian manhood unmasked as ineffectual or in thrall to a spiritually and sexually indomitable woman. 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. In 'Mara' she is a fiery and passionate earth mother, growing more womanly and capable with each child she bears, very much the kind of Latin archetype Pedro Almodóvar was paying tribute to with Volver (2006). In 'Anna' she is stylish, but superficial and contemptibly self-serving. Finally, in 'Mara' Loren plays a truly spirited woman, by turns uninhibited and proud yet fiercely moral, combining decency with sensuality. Compared to her Oscar winning role in De Sica's relentlessly grim Two Women (1960), the multilayered characterisations she delivers throughout Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow have dated far better and Loren is ably supported by her favourite sparring partner, the great Marcello Mastroianni. Mastroianni's Carmine starts out as a feckless ne'er do well, spoiled by his doting mama, but gradually goes on to exhibit some strength of character. Notably whilst serenading Adelina from outside the jail. As the writer Renzo in 'Anna' he is not unlike his iconic character in La Dolce Vita (1960) lacerating the bourgeoisie with his probing eye, while in 'Mara' his frantic attempts to get laid prove very funny indeed.
Of the various episodes 'Anna' is easily the least engaging, partly due to its shapeless story and a spiteful anti-heroine who never really gets the comeuppance she deserves. Moreover, Anna's rotten motoring skills seem like a crass dig at women drivers. Nevertheless the other two stories are ebullient examples of Italian comedy at its most energetic and chic. Celebrated cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno soaks up the scintillating scenery, whether it's those lush Italian vistas or a statuesque Sophia Loren. By far the most popular episode was 'Mara', not least on account of Loren's legendary striptease which secured her status as one of cinema's timeless sex symbols.