‘The Life Ahead’: Italian Icon Sophia Loren Makes a Triumphant Return as a Foster Mother Afflicted With PTSD
Over a decade after her last appearance in a feature film, cinema legend Sophia Loren makes a triumphant return to the silver screen in the Italian-language Netflix drama “The Life Ahead.” Loren stars as Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who looks after the children of other women who are or have been involved in sex work. A decent and no-nonsense woman, Rosa’s demeanor is far from being that of a saint, and her patience is truly put to the test when she reluctantly takes in tween drug dealer Momo (Ibrahima Gueye).
Based on the 1975 French novel “The Life Before Us” by Romain Gary, “The Life Ahead” was directed by Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son, who also wrote the adapted screenplay with Ugo Chiti. The novel has previously served as the source material for the 1977 Oscar winner “Madame Rosa.” This updated version, which mostly follows the plot of the novel, save for the location, which has switched out Paris for the beautiful Italian coastal town of Bari, manages to feel very timely, as it explores the immigration issue, as well as exploitation of children.
Momo, whose full name is Mohamed, is a ten-year-old Senegalese Muslim immigrant whose father killed his mother after she wanted to quit sex work. He doesn’t make the best first impression with Rosa, as he robs her at a crowded street market, snatching a bag from her containing a pair of antique candlesticks. Later, his temporary guardian, kindly Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), takes Momo over to Rosa’s to apologize. Realizing that Rosa might just be the firm hand the boy needs, he convinces her to take him in. Initially, Mom is less than thrilled to join this household, which also includes Iosif (Iosif Diego Pirvu), a Jewish Romanian boy around the same age of Momo. Iosif, whose family immigrated illegally, is the better behaved of the two, and he remains hopeful that his mother will come back for him. Rosa also helps take care of the toddler son of Lola (Abril Zamora), a friendly transgender woman who takes an interest in Momo’s well-being.
Rosa gets Momo a part-time job working for shopkeeper Hamil (Babak Karimi), but what she doesn’t know is that her new foster son is currently the most successful underling of drug dealer Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi). While Ruspa exploits Momo, Hamil nurtures him and his Muslim faith. Predictably, he eventually has to decide which path he wants to go down. Meanwhile, he comes to better understand Rosa, and vice versa, as he witnesses her experience PTSD, most memorably when she becomes catatonic in the middle of the rain.
Long used to being on his own, there’s a gradual shift in Momo as he comes to care for others, especially Rosa. Through Rosa, Ponti does a great job of showing the last effects of trauma, and Momo begins to bond with her after discovering that she has made her own safe room in the basement of her apartment building. Despite his tough exterior, Momo has his own anxieties, although Ponti doesn’t go deep enough in exploring them and the symbolism behind a CGI lion that appears to the boy at night.
Despite tackling such heavy themes, “The Life Ahead” never feels bleak and Momo manages to stay clear of any real danger. At times, it feels like a watered-down version of “Capernaum,” the 2018 Oscar-nominated Lebanese drama about a similar streetwise youth. The best part of this film is definitely its performances, not only from the incomparable Loren, but also from gifted newcomer Gueye. In the end, it is Rosa and Momo’s similar worldviews that cements their bond, as they both prefer to look ahead instead of wallowing in the present. Rosa puts it best when she says things start to get better when one stops hoping, a statement that is sure to resonant with the 2020 viewer.
“The Life Ahead” releases Nov. 6 in select cities and begins streaming Nov. 13 on Netflix.