The Life Ahead stars Sophia Loren, and if there is one reason to see The Life Ahead it is this: Sophia Loren. And if you need a second reason, it is this: Sophia Loren. Also, it is the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh reason. And probably the eighth. She is magnificent, truly.
Directed by Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son, the film is based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary. It was filmed in 1977 as Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret, and won the Oscar for best foreign film. Here, the action has been transposed from France to Italy and the port city of Bari which is, from what we see of it, rough and poverty-stricken rather than picturesque. And our Madame Rosa is Loren, in her first proper film role for 11 years. She is now 86 and still a triumphantly commanding presence. Also, as famously beautiful actresses are meant to become reclusive and lock themselves away rather than star as the old women they’ve become — see: Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford, Bardot etc. — there is something exhilarating just in this.
Back to Rosa, who is Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute who takes in children with nowhere else to go. Her latest charge is Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a Senegalese orphan who is Muslim and 10 or thereabouts. They had met in the market, where he stole her bag, so not a great beginning. But he was then marched to her apartment and forced to apologize by the local kindly doctor (Renato Carpentieri) who begs Madame Rosa to take him in. Madame Rosa, who is already looking after a Romanian boy and the toddler son of Lola (Abril Zamora), the transgender working-girl who lives in the apartment above, has her knotty hands full and is reluctant. But when the doctor offers her €700 a month she can’t afford to say no.
Their relationship is not promising initially. Momo is angry and defiant and more drawn to the local drug dealers than any kind of family life but as Rosa becomes more and more frail, and increasingly retreats to the basement where she keeps mementoes from her past, a partnership is formed between the two as, frankly, you always knew it would. There is nothing unpredictable about the storytelling here. In fact, what the film could have said about trauma and belonging and religious divides is ejected in favor of a standard tearjerker accompanied, as always, by soaring violins — go away! — and, in places, a CGI lion (long story) that plainly doesn’t work, plus some unfathomable transitions. Momo has a change of heart? Why?
But this isn’t a director’s film. Instead, it’s Loren’s, whose performance is not just heartfelt but also cuts through all the sentimentality by offering a Rosa who retains her abrasive core and isn’t merely a clichéd tart with a heart. In fact, every scene Loren isn’t in seems like a wasted one as she plays the old, knotty-handed woman she is now with such immense presence, such truth, and no vanity whatsoever. (She doesn’t look worked on, shall we say.)
She is the reason you’ll want to see The Life Ahead, but I think I’ve already made that clear.