Actor Sophia Loren broke a 10-year absence from the screen with her starring role in Netflix’s new drama “The Life Ahead.”
The film is the second adaptation of Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us,” and was directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti. It tells the story of a friendship between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a Senegalese orphan she takes into her home.
The 86-year-old Loren is vibrant as Madame Rosa, a former prostitute who survived Auschwitz and now grapples with her failing health. She takes care of other sex workers’ children, including the son of her friend Lola, played by the charming Abril Zamora. Child actor Ibrahima Gueye plays Momo, the drug-dealing 12-year-old who robs Madame Rosa at the beginning of the film. She takes him in reluctantly at the request of Renato Carpentieri’s grandfatherly Dr. Coen.
Loren portrays Madame Rosa with grit and vulnerability. After suffering incredible hardship, the character is still capable of great compassion, which she bestows on her charges in the form of tough love and sincere affection.
Perhaps the best example of this is her decision to put Momo in contact with Babak Karimi’s Hamil, a widower who owns a shop in their neighborhood. She asks him to give Momo work in the shop a few times a week, a move which initially seems like an attempt to get the boy out of her hair.
However, it proves to be a calculated move, as Hamil is a Muslim man of faith who encourages Momo to explore his heritage. He asks him to help him repair a rug depicting a lion, which he tells Momo is a powerful symbol in the Quran. Madame Rosa, who survived the Nazi’s attempt to destroy her heritage by force, does not intend to let Momo lose his heritage through neglect.
When memories of her past threaten to overwhelm her, Madame Rosa retreats to the basement of her apartment, where she listens to music and looks at photographs from her life before the war. She has survived everything the outside world could throw at her, but soon begins to strain under the burden of her own mental decline. She stares blankly into space while Momo and Iosif try to get her attention, hallucinates about past horrors and wanders away from her friends when she loses touch with reality. When she realizes the end is near, she asks Momo to promise not to let her die in a hospital, for fear of “experiments” by doctors.
Momo does not understand Madame Rosa’s past, having never heard of the Holocaust (he is confused by the numbers of her arm and refers to Auschwitz as “House witch”), nor does he understand the cause of her strange behavior. He does, however, understand that something horrible happened to her, and that she puts her trust in him.
The relationship between the caretaker and her troubled charge is one of several moving, well-developed connections in the film. Iosif Diego Pirvu’s Iosif, a boy whose mother left him in Madame Rosa’s care, and Momo begin their relationship as bitter enemies after Momo barges into Iosif’s room and plops on the bed with his shoes on.
They eventually bond over the absence of both their mothers and their shared concerns over the deterioration of Madame Rosa’s health, which they watch with the confusion of children whose lives have demanded maturity beyond their years. Soon, Momo is helping Iosif with his studies and sleeping next to him when he misses his mother, even as he tells him that she is never coming back.
When Iosif’s mother returns, Momo lashes out, consumed by his own jealousy and grief. Iosif attempts to comfort him, and Momo rejects him, leading to a bitter goodbye. The two boys, played with incredible emotional acuity by Gueye and Pirvu, could have had a film all to themselves.
The friendship between Madame Rosa and Lola is also a pleasure to watch. Although there is little information about how they met or what they have been through together, audiences can sense the history between them and the love they have for each other. Lola’s storyline incorporates her identity as a transgender woman without fetishizing it, with nods to how her wife left her to raise their son alone and her anxiety about visiting her father, who previously rejected her.
There’s nothing subtle about this film, which is not necessarily a bad quality in a classic tearjerker. However, there are moments when it all just feels a bit too much: Momo’s narration, which contains a lot of flowery similes and metaphors about the nature of life and loss, would have been better incorporated into dialogue or left out entirely. The phone given to Momo by his drug dealer boss goes off in Madame Rosa’s presence with the predictability of Chekhov’s gun. A scene featuring Italian police separating migrant parents from their children during a raid is meant to allude to Madame Rosa’s past and Momo’s immigrant parents, but it feels too rushed.
Nevertheless, Loren’s regal performance and Gueye’s youthful intensity make this film worth watching. Netflix has provided dubs in several languages, but it is best to watch with subtitles in the original Italian, since the dialogue feels stiff and insincere in English. There is also something delightful about Dr. Coen reminding Madame Rosa that Momo is only a “bambino” and Iosif describing his caretaker’s basement as her “Batcaverna,” or Batcave.