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Photo: ‘The Life Ahead’/Netflix
If there’s an actress right now worthy of the title “living legend”, it’s Sophia Loren.
An icon of Italian cinema and the Golden Age of classic Hollywood, Sophia Loren started her career 70 years ago in 1950 at the age of 16. In 1956 she signed a five-picture contract with Paramount Pictures, launching her international career acting opposite such names as Cary Grant, Anthony Perkins, and Clark Gable. Five years later, she made history as the first actor to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance in the movie Two Women. And throughout the 1960s, Loren—now known for both her dramatic talents and sultry good looks—was one of the most popular actresses in the world, appearing in both American and European films with prominent leading men like Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and Marlon Brando.
Her career, intentionally, slowed down in the 70s and 80s as she chose to focus on her family, as well as both charity and entrepreneurial work (including being the first female celebrity to launch her own perfume in 1981). But she would continue to make occasional movie appearances over the years; my first memory of her was in 1995’s Grumpier Old Men, with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Now in 2020, 10 years after her last major Hollywood film Nine, Loren returns to screens with the new Netflix film The Life Ahead, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. And at 86 she proves that she’s still got it, paired alongside a terrific debut performance.
Loren stars in the film alongside Ibrahima Gueye and Abril Zamora, who offer intense performances despite being relatively unknown actors. The film itself revolves around an aging Holocaust survivor (Loren) who takes in an unruly orphan (Gueye). Initially, I assumed this film would be a heartwarming tale of two misfits who find unexpected hope in each other, and boy, was I wrong. This film blew my expectations out of the water with its excellent story-telling, delightful performances, and a message of hope in darkness.
The Bonds We Forge Can Change Us Forever
Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is a young Senegalese Muslim orphan and street kid living in a seaside town in Italy. Determined to survive, he’s not above robbing and stealing in the hopes of gaining favor with Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi), a shady businessman and drug lord. And one of Momo’s recent targets is Madame Rosa (Loren), an elderly Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute who also makes a living babysitting children of sex workers.
When Momo’s guardian—and Rosa’s friend and physician—Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) catches him in the act, he begs Rosa to take Momo under her wing for a few months, believing that a strong, no-nonsense female figure who commands respect can set him straight. She initially refuses but ultimately accepts. At first, Momo is unruly and disrespectful to Rosa and the other kids under her care and starts working for Ruspa as a drug dealer.
But Rosa turns out to be just the right person in Momo’s life. As he becomes intrigued by her life and grows concerned over the illness gradually ravaging her mind, the two form an unlikely bond that will change their lives.
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Palpable Characters Make for a Convictive Narrative
At the heart of this story are the characters. Each character has a complex and emotional backstory that is told through snippets of dialogue. The script does an excellent job of taking its time; it allows each character to open up to the audience in a natural way. We first see them in their daily environment, allowing us to make our own judgments on their behavior and interactions with others. It is only after we feel like we know them that we are permitted to hear their story. Their story comes slowly as the film progresses, slipping out in everyday interactions or chores. For example, in the beginning of the film, Madame Rosa (Loren) is doing dishes with Momo (Gueye) when he notices a list of numbers tattooed on her arm.
He asks the other child living with them, Iosif, about these numbers, but Iosif can only offer wild conspiracies about secret agents. We, as the audience, understand immediately what these numbers mean: Madame Rosa is a Holocaust survivor. This technique, of showing and not telling, is an important part of what makes this movie feel genuine. The characters’ backstories seem to slip out, almost unintentionally, and each piece of information we learn about them helps to clarify why they behave the way they do. The Life Ahead is extraordinarily clever in its writing and dialogue; it feels like a genuine portrait of real people who struggle to reconcile with their past trauma. Overall, the well-developed characters and the slow reveal of their history lie at the core of what makes this film compelling to watch.
“Good Things Start to Happen”
Based on the 1975 book The Life Before Us by French author Romain Gary, The Life Ahead isn’t the first film version of this story. It was previously adapted as Madame Rosa in 1977 with Simone Signoret, winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. So this new adaptation, which Ponti co-wrote with Ugo Chiti, has some pretty big shoes to fill.
At its core, the plot is fairly standard and familiar. It doesn’t break the mold in terms of stories of intergenerational friendships and odd couples, such that astute viewers can pretty much guess the story beats and how it’ll end by the first couple minutes: that eventually Madame Rosa and Momo will find common ground; that his time with her opens his heart; and that he will have to reconsider how he really wants to live his life. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey; and credit to Ponti for making the journey worthwhile.
For one, Ponti shows admirable restraint in terms of drama. It would be easy for a story like this to devolve into maudlin, with rousing speeches and overemoting. But Ponti opts for a more modest approach. Dramatic outbursts are kept to a minimum; even the closest this movie has to an antagonist (Ruspa) is shown as a subdued figure. Furthermore, while Rosa and Momo (and other characters) do open up to each other, they avoid long-winded expository dialogue over-explaining their lives and perspectives. It’s like the two can almost immediately suss out the fact that they’ve both faced their share of hurt. Which makes their growing friendship all the more effective as it’s rooted in unspoken mutual understanding.
Refreshingly, The Life Ahead treats its kid characters as young adults. None of the adults talk down or condescend to the kids, with Rosa viewing the children in her care as people who know how harsh the world can be, and the movie is richer for it. While Momo’s love and care for Rosa is what redeems him, he comes to that realization on his own without needing to have someone spell it out for him. And tying in to that, the movie also dodges the “white savior” problem as it’s made clear that Rosa is just as damaged as Momo is. By the time we reach the third act, she needs him just as much as he needs her. And Ponti’s restrained approach pays off at this point as the movie’s turn to the sentimental, complete with an end-credits ballad by veteran songwriter Diane Warren and Italian singer Laura Pausini, feels believable and earned and is quite moving.
Stellar Acting Enhances the Script – When an Icon and a Newcomer Shines
However, a good script can only get a film so far, the actors’ performances truly bring the characters to life. Sophia Loren gives an outstanding performance as Madame Rosa, internalizing her character’s past and bringing it to justice on screen. Much of the buzz surrounding the film pre-release centered on Loren’s return, and rightly so. As Madame Rosa, she just commands the screen with a gravitas that comes from a decades-long career. The real-life effects of World War II that Loren experienced also seem to inform her portrayal of Rosa, bringing a certain authenticity to the performance. As a teenager, Loren lived in Pozzuoli, Italy, where the harbor and munitions plant was a frequent bombing point for the Allies. Her firsthand experience of the horrors of war at such a young age serves as a commonality between herself and Madame Rosa. Alternating between strong and fragile, she’s magnetic in capturing the essence of a woman whose tough exterior masks a vulnerability that she’s reluctant to show. It would’ve been easy for her to go for a more showy performance, but Loren gives us something more quiet and nuanced. There’s talk that she might score another Oscar nomination for her work here, and it wouldn’t surprise me.
Though Loren provides a heartfelt performance, both Gueye and Zamora support her with surprisingly honest depictions of a young orphan and a transgender sex-worker, respectively. Gueye, though young and inexperienced in the world of film, embodies the tragedy that is Momo’s life. Momo’s immaturity and desire for fun add a sense of childlike hope to the film while he attempts to reconcile that with his cynicism from a life of trauma. It’s an unexpectedly complex role for such a young actor to take on, however, Gueye absolutely nails it. His teary-eyed moments on screen, though few and far between, are impressively palpable, infecting the audience with his emotion. He also successfully displays moments of anger as well, translating the fear that lies underneath his outbursts.
Though emotionally volatile, Momo reads like a legitimate person, due to both the screenwriting and Gueye’s interpretation of complex emotions that stem from trauma. Gueye is alarmingly nuanced and gives an astounding performance in his feature film debut. He has arguably the harder task as the film is ultimately his story and he has to hold his own against a legend like Loren. He excels in the role, as Momo could’ve easily been an unlikeable brat. But Gueye finds pathos and humanity in his character. As rude and abrasive as Momo can be, we also see his unbridled joy in riding his bike or dancing to music on his headphones, his need to belong, and his growing sense of responsibility. And he and Loren have great chemistry together.
Loren and Gueye are also aided by a strong supporting cast. In addition to Carpentieri’s turn as the stern yet tired Dr. Coen and Rossi’s quietly menacing Ruspa, there’s also Babak Karimi as the warm and nurturing shopkeeper Mr. Hamil who also takes Momo under his wing.
Another standout is trans actress Abril Zamora as Lola, a working girl and close friend whose daughter Rosa also babysits, and she and Loren also share a delightful dance scene. Zamora, though she does not have as much screen time as Gueye or Loren, definitely leaves a strong impression on the viewer. Once again, this is a challenging role to play, given the complexities of Lola’s backstory. Instead of approaching the character with the seriousness her backstory implies, Zamora offers a fun and lighthearted take on who this woman is. Her infectious charisma renders perfectly onscreen, providing the audience with some much-needed comic relief as well as hope.
Lola is a beacon of stability in the darkness for both Madame Rosa and Momo. However, she is well-rounded, voicing her own struggle with her relationship with her father while providing care for Momo and Rosa. Zamora is truly versatile in her acting skills, shown by the balancing act of playing such a multidimensional character as Lola. The film’s inclusion of a transgender character is also progressive in its subtlety. Often times, transgender stories are the main focus of a film, such as in The Danish Girl. But, this film, by including a transgender character whom the story does not revolve around is inherently progressive because it normalizes gender fluidity. It presents gender as a non-issue, choosing to highlight Lola’s nurturing tendencies and lighthearted approach to life instead of her gender identity, which provides a refreshing take on transgender representation.
Why ‘The Life Ahead’ is Worth a Watch
To sum up, The Life Ahead deserves the Oscar-buzz that it has been getting. The characters are well-developed and well-rounded, creating a genuine complexity and depth to the story as it progresses. Though the film is relatively short, only about ninety minutes, it manages to take its time and never feels rushed. The script does an excellent job of showing the audience the characters’ trauma instead of telling, which leads the film to feel more genuine in its approach. The actors themselves bring the characters to life onscreen with complicated performances that feel more than authentic. The hardships these characters experience throughout the film never leave them, instead, they inform their reactions in every situation. The message of the film is bittersweet as it focuses on finding hope and connection in others through tragedy. The ending is reflective, and, though it may seem sad on the surface, provides closure to the story as a whole and allows us to appreciate the small moments of goodness in the harshness of life. Overall, The Life Ahead is definitely worth a watch before February.
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