In Netflix’s The Life Ahead, 86 year-old Oscar-winner Sophia Loren returns to the screen as Madame Rosa, an Italian/Jewish Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute who shelters several streetwalkers’ children in her modest apartment.
When Madame Rosa’s doctor asks her to care for Mohammad (Ibrahima Gueye) – a.k.a. Momo – she reluctantly agrees – even though, shortly before, the sullen 12 year-old Senegalese/Muslim orphan stole her purse containing two heirloom candlesticks which he attempted to pawn. Eventually, they become each other’s protectors, forming an unconventional family.
If the plot sounds familiar, French screenwriter/director Romain Gary, utilizing the pseudonym Emile Ajar, wrote the 1975 novel“La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us), for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt (France’s Pulitzer Prize).
In 1977, writer/director Moshe Mizrahi filmed the allegory as Madame Rosa, changing the locale to the Parisian neighborhood of Pigalle, casting Simone Signoret as the elderly prostitute; it subsequently won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film.
Now it’s been adapted by Sophia Loren’s son, director Edoardo Ponti, a USC grad, and co-screenwriter Ugo Chiti, who transplant the still resonant, immigrant drama to the southern Italian seaside town of Bari, naturalistically chronicled by cinematographer Angus Hudson and amplified by Gabriel Yared’s music and a Dianne Warren ballad, sung by Laura Pausini.
Richly deserving of another Oscar nomination in 2021, Sophia Loren was the first actress to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language film: Vittorio De Sica’s 1962 neorealist wartime drama Two Women, produced by her husband Carlo Ponti. She was also nominated in 1965 for Marriage Italian Style. In 1991, Loren was awarded an Honorary Oscar.
Loren’s tough-love, maternal Madame Rosa, who oozes compassion and love, packs a subtle yet surprising emotional wallop, proving once again that she’s still one of the screen’s most exciting actresses, while young Ibrahima Gueye is touching, lively and exuberant, exuding an instinctive emotional intelligence.
In Italian with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Life Ahead is an authentic, empathetic 8 – seductively powerful for its indelible performances.