The thing that most people forget about Sophia Loren is that this woman can really act.

Really.Sure, Loren is beautiful, with those magnificent eyes and irresistible lips, not to mention an incredible figure and bone structure like crazy. But as with contemporaries Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, it's always been easy to be so overwhelmed by Loren's looks that you don't even notice how talented she is.

But don't worry you'll have another chance to evaluate her acting skills this Sunday and Monday when NBC presents its five-hour dramatization of Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim (Sunday at 8 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m., Ch. 2). And this time the show's producers have attempted to help you focus by de-glamourizing Loren so that audiences can concentrate on her portrayal of an immigrant mother trying to keep her family together as she pursues the American Dream.

It doesn't work. Even without the mascara and with the addition of some wrinkles and a few wisps of grey hair, Loren is a handsome woman. But that doesn't really matter because Loren is able to turn in another fine performance as Mama Lucia, rising above a rather hackneyed, cliche-ridden script and a story that could have probably been told much more effectively in one two- or three-hour installment.

"The Fortunate Pilgrim" is Puzo's autobiographical novel that evokes the melting pot spirit of America during this century's first couple of decades. As a book it was probably a good read, but as a piece of drama there's just too much there to be digested comfortably within a limited period of time. In just five hours we deal with war and peace, death and desertion, mental illness and the Mob, prejudice and premarital sex. We follow a family that lives together, struggles together, grows together and gets involved in more romantic entanglements than "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Falcon Crest" and "Knots Landing" combined.

With so much ground to cover, its no wonder that the show ultimately seems shallow. Edward James Olmos and Hal Holbrook, who play Mama Lucia's husband and suitor, respectively, aren't given the opportunity to create the warm, real characters they are capable of. And most of the rest of the cast which includes, John Turturro, Annabella Sciorra, Ron Marquette, Roxann Biggs and Edward Wiley struggles to keep up with the show's rapid pace. How much more rewarding this would have been had the producers taken a smaller segment of the book and focused on it, giving us two hours of deep drama instead of five hours of superficiality.

Still, Loren manages to emerge from the production with her artistic reputation intact. Her Mama Lucia is the heart and soul of the film, and it is well-crafted and textured, if not altogether satisfying. One gets the feeling that Loren knows this proud, courageous woman intimately, personally.

Which is, in fact, the case.

"I knew her," she told television critics in Los Angeles earlier this year. "She was my grandmother, my mother, the women in my hometown. So many of these women had to come to America alone, often brides by proxy. They came to a new world with only hopes of achieving the American dream."

So when she read Puzo's book 15 years ago, she immediately pictured herself as Lucia. "I knew what Puzo was saying, and I knew how to play it," Loren said. "That's why I pursued the project for so many years."

And it wasn't just the character's ethnicity that was appealing to the actress. "This is the kind of role that I do best a mother's role," Loren said. "I have always been attached to this type of role because there are so many emotions, so many feelings."

Indeed, Lucia is much like the role she played in the 1961 feature film, "Two Women," for which she received a Best Actress Oscar.

"I tend to choose the role of a mother because there is such a special bond between mother and child," she said. "No one can really understand that but a mother."

Loren said she understands that role because of her bond to her own mother, who she said "has been a great inspiration to me." She also understands it because of the strong bond she shares with her own children. "Being a mother of two sons," she said, "I can identify with the pain and joy women like Lucia feel for their children and the desire to do what is best for the family."

That identification comes through clearly in her portrayal of Lucia. And that's the real mark of a fine actress high cheekbones and dazzling eyes notwithstanding.