Sofia Villani Scicolone first appeared into the movie called Quo Vadis in 1951 when she was only 15 years old. She was renamed “Sophia Loren” by her husband Carlo Ponti who also directed the film. Loren got the film industry’s attention immediately, for not only her beauty, but also for her acting talent. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Two Women in 1960, the first Oscar ever given for a performance in a foreign-language movie.
Sophia Loren’s acting career has now spanned 70 years, but she hasn’t appeared in a film in over a decade. She is now the lead actress in the 2020 Netflix’s film The Life Ahead, directed by her son, Edorado Ponti. It is based on Romain Gary’s 1975 book The Life Before Us (already adapted once before, in 1977’s Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret.
The Life Ahead is about an elderly Holocaust survivor and ex-prostitute who operates an unofficial juvenile foster home, for children whose mothers have either abandoned them or can no longer take care of them. Within the local Italian sex trade is a community that all too often lets its children live on the streets or forces them to learn how to survive on their own. Madame Rosa tries to create that “safe space” working to save selected youth from her particular neighborhood. Loren inhabits the role of Madame Rosa as if it was written just for her.
Madame Rosa teams with a teenage Senegalese refugee named Momo, who first meets Rosa when he snatches a couple of antique candlesticks from her arms and runs off with them. Momo, short for Mohamed, has no memory of his home country. His father killed his mother when she refused to continue to prostitute herself. Momo is a streetwise, tough kid with a hardened exterior, who makes money selling drugs and committing other petty crimes. Madame Rosa is onto Momo and the dangers of his chosen career, as she cajoles a local storeowner played by Babak Karimi to give Momo a job just a couple days a week. Madame Rosa’s life also revolves around another best friend, Lola, a sex worker played by trans actress Abril Zamora. Lola was, as Momo informs us in voiceover, once a middleweight boxing champion, and so everyone “respected her … because if they didn’t, she’d bash their faces in.”
The relationship created by Rosa among herself, Momo and Lola are delicately interwoven and certainly caring, even loving. You can feel the history, depth and passion between these two women and now with the addition of Momo, Rosa’s small community of “family” begin to notice that she is starting to cognitively deteriorate.
Loren brings to the cinematic table her lifetime of acting proficiency, talent, and sense of truth. Loren’s Madame Rosa is alternately warm and prickly, authoritative but at times witty, resilient but intimately delicate.
The viewer can easily see that Madame Rosa has led a hard life, and it shows in her face, her blurred numbers tattooed on her forearm – shorthand for a traumatic history which is neither examined nor explained. Instead, it’s in the smaller moments shared by the movie’s flawed and humble characters — Loren twirling to old samba records in magic-hour sunlight; Karimi Hamil teaching Momo how to reweave a rug — and its immersive Italian setting that make The Life Ahead strong and certainly worth viewing.
Unfortunately, with increasing episodes, Madame Rosa lapses into blankness when the trauma of her Holocaust past gets to much for her to bear. In these time flashbacks, Rosa seems really utterly shattered, often gazing into emptiness and is often unapproachable. When these feelings encompass her, it’s so harsh and abrupt it seems to shock even her. It certainly shocks the viewer.
Momo also shows a rainbow of emotions. He exudes brooding anger, then kindness to his housemates and ultimately as gentle caregiver to Rosa. However, it is clear, Momo doesn’t understand Rosa — he has never even heard of the Holocaust or its uniquely personal trauma. But he does understand what it is to be hated, bullied and unwanted.
Through non-verbal communication. Rosa and Momo discover that they are match of allied souls. They both rebel against the status quo and neither will back down to anyone who is doing wrong. And when Rosa sees the end of her own life approaching, she asks Momo for a grave, terrible favor, and he promises to deliver it when it is finally time. “You’re a little shit,” Madame Rosa says to him, “but I know you keep your word.” Momo can only smile back in return.
The Life Ahead earns its tear-jerking emotions without going sentimentally over the top. And it also has other charismatic, tolerant components. For instance, it’s beautiful to see Rosa dance extemporaneously with the transgender actress Abril Zamora, who plays the mother of one of Rosa’s other foster children. The tender scenes between Momo and Madame Rosa and how she is turning his life around are beautiful and certainly emotional to watch.
No more spoilers here….
The Life Ahead will provide you with a few tears, a few laughs but also an opportunity to view a master class of acting from the one of the greatest actresses of our time. This is a film you won’t want to miss.
Jeffery Giesener, former CEO of SourceMob, has both public and private company experience. Today, retired and enjoying life in San Diego, he’s a freelance writer who has a passion for both cinema and baking his Mom’s (OBM) European recipes.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World