The headline appeal of this new movie is that it stars Sophia Loren.
Loren, the serious and seriously beautiful actress of the last century, plays Madame Rosa, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, retired streetwalker and, now, informal foster parent of other prostitutes’ children.
The action starts as Madame Rosa walks down the street with a parcel. The bag, with two vases inside, is snatched by a young boy who runs away with it.
Shortly after the robbery, her friend and neighbor, Dr. Cohen, brings thief and vases up to her apartment. Cohen asks Madame Rosa to take the wayward boy into her care.
Rosa says no, of course. She is a serious women, and, not surprisingly, the kid looks like trouble to her.
The doctor offers money and then more money. He says the 12-year-old boy, Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), “needs a female figure, someone who commands respect.”
When she agrees, finally, and the doctor leaves, Momo (short for Mohamed) behaves obnoxiously toward the two younger children in the apartment. One is the child of Rosa’s dear friend, Lola (Abril Zamora), and the other, a Jewish boy, is sure his mother will come to get him soon after months of absence.
Momo, born in Senegal, has lived in Italy since he was three, but he has been mostly on his own since his mother was killed by his father three years later.
Rosa is a good caretaker with the right children, but she is a not a pushover or a sweetie pie. She calls Momo “a little shit,” and he, like many in the neighborhood, refers to her as “the old bag.”
But Momo has skills. He’s very good at selling street drugs. He can draw, and he enjoys music. He’s curious about why Rosa leaves the apartment for the building basement every now and then. When Rosa pressures an Islamic grocer (Babak Karim) to give Momo a part-time job, the man shares his books and rugs and the two get to know each other, but slowly and with friction.
So, yes, Momo loosens up in Mama Rosa’s home. But for every 1.5 steps forward, there is at least one full step back. Meanwhile, there are signs that Rosa’s health is declining. When Momo shows concern, her own coolness thaws a bit.
Essentially, the story is about human loss, starting with Jewish Rosa whose family died at Auschwitz, and continuing with her friend Lola, whose father wants to meet his grandchild but is not so certain about his sex-worker daughter who is also transgender. Add in the other boy and the widowed grocer, and it’s a full deck of people hungry for family.
The setting, a skeezy neighborhood of prostitutes and drug dealers and carabinieri and graffiti, presumably was chosen to pile on the tension faced by the luckless characters and make the theme more complex.
This story was told first in a 1975 French novel set in Paris and, second, in a 1977 French film starring Simone Signoret. I watched part of that film, and it wasn’t the great actress’ best work.
This newer version was cowritten by Edoardo Ponti, Sophia Loren’s son, who also directed.
Her presence, wearing her age (so Italian, that) and carrying herself with dignity and fear and without false drama, makes it much more interesting than it would have been with a lesser actress. In addition, Momo’s energy and anger are on full display in this movie, and actor Ibrahima Gueye’s every movement reads true.
The Life Ahead was filmed in the Italian city of Bari, along the Adriatic Sea. It was filmed in Italian and seems to have dubbed into English for Netflix’s American viewers, and this does not work, at least for this viewer.
It’s not that the characters’ mouths are obviously speaking a different language — Italian is rather mellifluous, after all — but that their dialogue has been rendered in idiomatic US English, which feels jarring given the Italian setting. So do the occasional insertions of Italian exclamations. “Mala fangul!”
Fortunately, this Netflix explainer, also in US style, shows how to adjust the setting to watch the movie with Italian speech and English subtitles. Much better.