This 2020 Italian drama stars Sophia Loren in an adaptation of the Romain Gary novel, The Life Before Us. Directed by Sophia Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead is the third film based on Gary’s novel.
The Life Ahead has two main characters: Madame Rosa, an octogenarian ex-prostitute and former Holocaust survivor, and a 12-year old Somalian child. To support herself Madame Rosa cares for the children of local sex workers in her apartment. Consequently, Rosa is the glue in her neighborhood and the lifeline for women desperate to maintain a sense of motherhood as they prostitute themselves.
Near the end of Madame Rosa’s life, 12-year old Momo (a vivid performance by Ibrahima Gueye), abruptly is thrust upon her. A local doctor who has been trying to find a foster home for Momo pleads with Rosa to accept the Somalian child into her informal daycare center.
A Muslim boy from Senegal, Momo has no memory of Senegal, except for the trauma of watching his father kill his mother when she refused to prostitute herself. Abandoned by the father, now Momo is a tough, angry, and lonely street kid who makes money selling drugs. Madame Rosa suspects the boy is engaging in criminal acts and endangering his future. She wheedles a local store-owner (Babak Karimi, from “The Salesman” and “A Separation”) into giving Momo a job a couple days a week in his carpet store.
Very slowly Momo starts to open his heart, first towards another little boy he shares a room with at Madame Rosa’s. Then with the carpet store owner who shows him how to repair valuable rugs, and finally with the small community of women who wish to protect Madame Rosa as she starts to decline. Most of all, however, it is the Momo-Madame Rosa friendship which becomes fierce and protective. When Rosa most needs support to fulfill her dream, she tells Momo: “You’re a little shit but I know you keep your word.”
Momo very gradually learns to understand and appreciate Madame Rosa, taking in all she gives him . Through their pain and fear and need, they still see beauty: in the boy’s drawings and in the old woman’s memories of her childhood. Momo draws lions when his memories become unbearable. When Madame Rosa’s trauma is too much, she retreats into the building’s basement to listen to her music. Almost incredibly, both characters are still capable of acts of great generosity. Both the very young and the very old are exceptional as they forge their friendship, despite their scars and unhealed wounds.
Sophia Loren’s Madame Rosa is alternately imperious and vulnerable, warm and cranky, strong and fragile. It is a heroic role for her. She foregoes cosmetically softening that once glamorous and beautiful face for one that is almost unrecognizable. But it is a masterful decision for her to make. Loren’s exterior has been toughened for this role. In those moments when she is trying to protect her traumatized soul, Loren seems truly broken and unreachable. Except for the boy. Theirs is an unlikely friendship, to say the least. Momo has never heard of Auschwitz—he thinks she is saying “house witch”.
A small but surprising film, quirky with only a bit of a saggy middle and an unnecessarily weak ending. Charming and endearing performances make a sometimes ordinary story quite masterful. Highly recommend.
Availability: Netflix streaming; released on November 6, 2020.