'The Life Ahead' ('La vita davanti a sé'): Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren in 'The Life Ahead'

An earth mother makes a moving exit.

Sophia Loren stars as a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who bonds with a Senegalese orphan in Edoardo Ponti's update for Netflix of the international best-seller by Romain Gary.

The same Romain Gary novel that became the Oscar-winning 1977 French drama, Madame Rosa, earning a César Award for Simone Signoret in the title role, gets relocated from Paris to a Southern Italian coastal town in The Life Ahead. This sensitive contemporary remake, set in one of the hubs of the Euro-Mediterranean migrant crisis, reshapes the work as a vehicle for director Edoardo Ponti's celebrated mother, Sophia Loren, back on the screen after a 10-year absence. Audiences will warm to the handsomely crafted Italian-language Netflix feature, a sentimental yet satisfying labor of love.

From her priceless appearances in the classic comedies of Vittorio De Sica to her impassioned turn in the same director's 1961 World War II drama, Two Women, which made her the first actor to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language role, Loren has embodied a rich spectrum of Italian womanhood: Sultry and volatile, warm and maternal, glamorous but also gritty and authentic.

Directing his mother for the third time following 2002's Between Strangers and the 2014 short The Human Voice, Ponti fully capitalizes on those qualities, tailoring the role to her earthy magnetism, her natural humor and tenacity. He serves up the screen legend with her proud physical hauteur frayed by the sad reality of declining health, anchoring her character in a milieu of poverty and struggle that tugs at the heartstrings.

Ponti and veteran screenwriter Ugo Chiti (Gomorrah) find seamless cultural equivalencies between the Belleville immigrant slum in Gary's novel (a Prix Goncourt winner first published in 1975 under a pseudonym) and a poor quarter of present-day Bari, a port city whose alleys are marked by crime, drugs and prostitution. The key characters all are or have at one time been considered second-class citizens — due to religion, race, refugee status or sexuality — and the underlying theme is the need for love, a home, acceptance and dignity shared by all people regardless of their background.

Madame Rosa makes a modest living running her apartment as an informal refuge for the children of immigrant sex workers. Having spent 40 years on the streets herself, she reasons that these underprivileged kids are better off in her care than with social services. When her sympathetic medic Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) begs her to take in 12-year-old Senegalese orphan Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), the same kid who snatched her bag and shoved her to the ground at the market, she is no keener on the idea than he is. But she can't afford to say no to the monthly stipend the doctor offers.

The temporary arrangement starts out unpromisingly, with Momo keeping his distance from Madame Rosa's other wards, Iosif (Iosif Diego Pirvu) and Babu (Simone Surico), as well as from the lady of the house. He's more interested in carving out a lucrative niche for himself on the streets, quickly outperforming his competitors selling weed for local drug lord Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi).

Almost despite himself, Momo becomes absorbed into the unconventional family, which includes Madame Rosa's downstairs neighbor Lola (Abril Zamora), a Spanish trans sex worker who is Babu's parent. Lola dreams of taking the boy back to Galicia to meet her estranged father, while Iosif clings to the hope that his mother will return for him.

The Auschwitz prisoner number tattooed on Madame Rosa's arm reveals her traumatic history to the audience. But to Momo she remains something of a mystery as he observes her slipping into blackout periods or retreating to the secret sanctuary she keeps in the building's basement, full of mementoes of her past. Momo amusingly calls it her "batcave."

Faith clearly matters to her. Given that Iosif is undocumented and unable to attend school, Madame Rosa teaches him Hebrew, and she charms Muslim carpet merchant Mr. Hamil (Babak Karimi) into taking on Momo to help in his shop as a way of exposing him to the culture of his birthplace. The boy gets involved helping him repair an antique rug with a lion motif, an image that then penetrates his dreams. Those sequences, with a Disney-style photorealist CG lioness, feel more like literary remnants than integral parts of the screenplay, as does the skimpy framing device of Momo's narration.

The movie is on sturdier ground when it pulls in close on the intimate bond that forms between Madame Rosa and the boy. As her vitality begins draining and her periods of lucidity are interrupted by more frequent absences, she makes Momo promise not to let her be hospitalized, alluding to brutal experiences at the hands of doctors during the war. The pact between them forces him to mature quickly, choosing between continuing as one of Ruspa's lieutenants or honoring the wishes of the woman who has given him a home.

While there's a sleek gloss to cinematographer Angus Hudson's picturesque visuals, with arresting drone shots of the densely populated city, the graceful, textured camerawork doesn't prettify the locations. There's a strong sense of place in the melting-pot setting, which has been in the news in the past decade as a principal point of entry for waves of refugee migration from Africa and the Middle East. (One scene showing cops arresting immigrants plays like a regular occurrence and serves to soften Madame Rosa's feelings toward the unmanageable Momo at a crucial juncture.)

Ponti's admiration for the neorealist masters of Italian cinema is evident, even if his storytelling leans toward slicker, more predictable melodrama and his emotional exploration is less subtle. That said, there's economy in the use of Gabriel Yared's gentle score.

An Oscar-bait original Diane Warren song performed by Italian superstar Laura Pausini on the end credits is a reminder that The Life Ahead is a middlebrow tearjerker in an old-fashioned mold. But there's nothing wrong with that, especially when it's such a classy endeavor.

Ponti coaxes natural work, conveying both toughness and raw isolation, from first-time actor Gueye, whose own background has parallels with Momo's. And there's a persuasive evolution in the tenderness that draws him to Madame Rosa. Slipping into the flavorful Neapolitan accent of her early years, Loren creates a warm-blooded, grounded character, whose feistiness ebbs slowly as the ravages of age, ill health and painful memory take hold. It's a lovely performance, full of pathos, from an esteemed actress whose wealth of experience illuminates this touching human drama.

Production companies: Palomar, in association with Artemis Rising Foundation
Distributor: Netflix (in select theaters Nov. 6, streaming from Nov. 13)
Cast: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Renato Carpentieri, Iosif Diego Pirvu, Massimiliano Rossi, Abril Zamora, Babak Karimi, Simone Surico
Director: Edoardo Ponti
Screenwriters: Ugo Chiti, Edoardo Ponti, based on the novel
The Life Before Us, by Romain Gary
Producers: Carlo Degli Esposti, Nicole Serra, Regina K. Scully, Lynda Weinman
Executive producers: Patrizia Massa, Guendalina Ponti, Edoardo Ponti, David Paradice, Esmeralda Swartz, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jamie Wolf
Director of photography: Angus Hudson

Production designer: Maurizio Sabatini
Costume designer: Ursula Patzak
Music: Gabriel Yared
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Casting: Chiara Polizzi
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes