Get out the handkerchiefs.
It’s been 11 years since Sophia Loren graced the screen and the wait was well worth it. The Life Ahead, directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, gives Loren, 86, the perfect vehicle for a comeback. (When asked In an interview with the New York Times, if she will continue acting, she says: “If I like acting, why should I stop?” We hope she doesn’t.)
Loren plays Madame Rosa an ex-prostitute whose home provides a temporary sanctuary for the children of sex workers. “Streetwalkers always help each other,” she explains. And, of course, operating outside the social services system lessens the risk that the women will have their children taken away. Rosa is tough and often will refuse to care for a child she feels will be too much trouble. One such child is Mohamed, nicknamed Momo, played by 14 year-old Ibrahima Gueye, who more than holds his own opposite Loren.
Rosa first meets Momo when he assaults her in a street market, knocking her to the ground and stealing her bag. Momo has been staying with Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), whose practice is located in his home. But the teen’s street crimes prove too much for the doctor and after discovering that the antiques belong to Rosa, he comes up with a plan. Momo will apologize, return the goods and then be given a room in Rosa’s home. When the doctor also throws in 750 Euros a month, Rosa agrees.
Rosa and Momo seem like polar opposites, but they are both survivors. As a young child, Rosa endured Auschwitz, while a six year-old Momo, who came to Italy from Senegal, saw his mother killed by his father when she refused to continue selling herself. Rosa deals with her trauma retreating to a basement room where she sits in silence. But at other times, her withdrawal is extreme, leaving her catatonic. On one occasion, she sits in the pouring rain on her roof. Momo’s comfort arrives as a lion who turns up in his dreams, often licking his face.
Hoping to keep Momo away from criminal elements on the streets, Rosa convinces a friend Hamil (Babak Karimi), to have the teen work in his shop several days a week. Momo is initially reluctant, continuing to deal drugs. But Hamil’s influence has an impact, particularly when he unrolls a carpet to be repaired that features the image of a lion. Momo soon spends his time on the project.
Rosa doesn’t just feed and house the children she takes in. She schools Iosif in Hebrew to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. Momo learns that one of the children Rosa cared for went on to become police chief and still offers her protection. And while Rosa can be stern, she lets down her hair with her best friend, Lola (played by trans actor Abril Zamora), who pulls the older woman into a dance. Lola, a sex worker who was once a middleweight boxing champion, often leaves her son, Babu, with Rosa. While the neighborhood thugs leave Lola alone (she can still knock anyone out), reconciling with her father is another story. He has rejected her, but wants to meet his grandson. Reluctantly, she agrees to go, departing at a critical moment in Rosa’s life.
Rosa knows her time is running out. Perhaps because of her time in the camp, she’s fearful of doctors and hospitals. Momo doesn’t understand her history. When she tells him she used to hide under the barracks at Auschwitz, he asks, “Housewitch?” She answers: “The name means nothing to you. Just as well.” But Momo, she realizes, is the one person who can help her on her final journey.
Edoardo Ponti, whose father was the famed director Carlo Ponti, wisely chose this project for his mother. The film, based on Romain Gary’s book, The Life Before Us, was adapted in 1977 starring Simone Signoret. But Ponti and Loren put their own imprint on the story.
Loren is simply magnificent. Don’t we all hope to age as beautifully? She holds our attention with a facial expression or a gesture. That surface toughness covers a softer interior, one that comes to the surface when she’s dancing with Lola or tutoring Iosif. The shot of her hand intertwined with Momo’s is stunning, uniting these two very different, yet so similar, survivors at a pivotal moment.
Photo Credit: Netflix/REGINE DE LAZZARIS AKA GRETA
Now streaming on Netflix