At 86 years young, Sophia Loren knows all about the life ahead. The iconic superstar of cinema Italiano returns with her first film role since 2009’s Nine. In Rob Marshall’s (underrated) musical, Loren played mother to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Fellini-esque Guido. She had few lines in the movie and basically just stood there as a ghost from her son’s past. Now, working with her real son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren gets a true anomaly of a lead role: a meaty part for an octogenarian. Her rich and subtly devastating performance proves she hasn’t missed a beat during her absence. Playing Madame Rosa, a former prostitute turned nanny for children of girls on the street, Loren gives a performance of great maturity, depth, wisdom, and grace. Loren’s performance in The Life Ahead reminds a viewer why she’s one of the last true stars of cinema’s golden age.
The Life Ahead updates the 1977 film Madame Rosa, directed by Moshé Mizrahi and starring Simone Signoret. Madame Rosa won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for France and the Italians would be pazzi if they didn’t submit the remake. Alternatively, Loren’s performance has the goods to bring her back to the podium 60 years after her first win. A soulful power ballad by Oscar bridesmaid Dianne Warren, moreover, could really let The Life Ahead double dip. Oscars or no Oscars, however, this film has a heart of gold.
Madame Rosa’s mighty heart
The heart is inevitably Sophia Loren and it’s a testament to her timeless magnetism that the film proves so stirring. The Life Ahead traces the well-worn steps of a palatable crowd-pleaser. One could, for example, easily just take my review for The Cuban and change the particulars. Like The Cuban, it’s a heart-warming odd-couple tale of encounters. Madame Rosa befriends a young orphan, Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) whom her doctor entrusts in her care. (Only after he offers her $750 bucks a month, mind you.) Madame Rosa isn’t thrilled about Momo’s company, since her first impression of him came when he mugged her. Stealing heirloom candlesticks that could have paid her rent, and being far too rough with an elderly lady, Rosa’s disapproval of Momo is understandable. However, the compassionate bishop to Momo’s Jean Valjean, Rosa forgives the stolen candlesticks. She welcomes Momo into her surrogate family.
Like the folks of The Cuban, memories plague Momo and the Madame. Momo fitfully recalls his life in Africa with reveries that border upon night terrors. A CGI lion (which Netflix totally cheaped out on, fyi) visits him nightly and brings him comfort. The lioness of the lair, alternatively, is a Holocaust survivor who relives traumatic events as she approaches the death she escaped decades before. Madame Rosa holes up in her own little cave and spaces out when the kids are away. Momo recognizes Rosa’s vulnerability in these moments, however, and ultimately becomes her protector. The guardianship is mutual as the two survivors learn about what it means to live and care for others.
The odd couple
The Life Ahead takes a gamble in casting a newcomer like Gueye opposite a veteran like Loren. However, Gueye is one of those young actors with remarkable emotional intelligence and presence. He holds his own against la bella Loren. Ample credit goes to both Ponti for directing the young actor and to Loren for being so warmly accessible. Gueye’s emotional arc of the film is essential to Loren’s own, and the actors have genuine chemistry. The music by Gabriel Yared, moreover, effectively tugs at the heart without over doing it—just like the film.
If the intergenerational drama of The Life Ahead echoes with familiarity, however, it’s because it uses a reliable mould. This touching two-hander has universal themes about empathy, compassion, and being a responsible citizen of the world. As the effectively sentimental ballad that closes the film says, The Life Ahead is about the power of making someone feel seen. Moreover, Ponti and writers Fabio Natale and Ugo Chiti update the story to reflect Italy amid the global migration crisis. Momo’s situation, tragically, is not unique. Italy is home to many refugees who survive the treacherous voyage across the sea from Africa. The Life Ahead reflects a reality one could take for granted. It’s most refreshing to see a film in 2020 in which someone opens his or her arms to an outsider.
The Life Ahead is now in select theatres and debuts on Netflix Nov. 13.