NEW YORK — What a mother won’t do for her child! Sophia Loren, who recently turned 86, has achieved everything one can achieve in motion pictures, and hardly needs the hassle of early call times to set, just to sit around waiting for the lights to get tweaked. (Filmmaking, you should know, is tedious, tiring business.) But if it’s your son directing, and working from a book that’s already a proven winner when adapted to film, you say okay, okay, I’ll do it.
And that, I suspect, is why we have “The Life Ahead,” a weighty drama from Edoardo Ponti that says “get out of my way, there’s a star coming through.” It tells the story of Madame Rosa, a tough-as-nails former prostitute and Auschwitz survivor, who offers a kind of daycare to children of “working girls.” Now, at the end of her life, she forms a bond with an orphan thief named Momo, born in Senegal and living on the streets of Bari, Italy, who just needs some tough love to pull him from the criminal’s path.
The film debuted direct to Netflix this weekend, and even with the coronavirus pandemic ruining the typical “awards season” narrative, it accords Sophia Loren an opportunity to warm her skin with the red carpet spotlight one more time. It is her first movie since the musical “Nine” in 2009.
“The Life Ahead” is based on the 1975 novel “The Life Before Us” by Romain Gary, a Lithuanian Jew whose family moved to France in 1928 when he was in his teens. Though converted to Catholicism by his mother, he entered the French Air Force at the height of World War II and suspected his failure to be given an officer’s commission was due to anti-Semitism. He fought with the Free French based in England, and after the war became a writer and diplomat. His career took him to Los Angeles, and he eventually married the actress Jean Seberg. (When she stepped out on him with Clint Eastwood, he reportedly challenged Eastwood to a duel.)
The point is that Gary lived a big, bold life and, while I haven’t read “The Life Before Us,” one would think that an adaptation of his work would be similarly abounding with drama. And that’s what you’ll find in the 1977 version of the “The Life Before Us,” directed by Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi.
That French film, “Madame Rosa,” won Mizrahi the Academy Award for best foreign language film (the first Israeli citizen of only four to win that treasured statue) and the movie’s star, Simone Signoret, won the César (French Oscar) for best actress.
The 1977 Signoret version of Madame Rosa, ultimately a force for tremendous good, doesn’t have a saint’s halo. We first meet her as she is schlepping up the stairs, griping about her aching feet. When she first takes in Momo, she lets slip some casual Islamophobia. She has that “take it or leave it” attitude that geriatric women who have seen it all can get away with. Later, when her grip on reality begins to get wobbly, she suffers specific paranoid delusions about the 1942 Paris roundup.
Loren’s version, on the other hand, drastically sands-down most of what makes the character interesting. This production gets most of its mileage out of the simple fact that this icon of cinema — truly one of the last Golden Age international film stars still with us — allows herself to look shabby.
Well, “movie shabby,” if that makes any sense. Sure when she goes into one of her perplexed reveries she can put on a blank stare, but she still has an undeniable glow. She’s one of those women who is always put-together, even when sick in bed, which flies in the face of a narrative of “such a brave performance” from a legend.
Madame Rosa’s charisma helps her maintain a circle of older and middle-aged men, including a Dr. Coen, always eager to help, but now needs a favor of his own. He’s the one who first brings the 11-year-old Momo to her, reluctant though the kid may be. At first she wants nothing to do with him either (other than to take back the candlesticks he nicked from her) but in time they will grow to have a strong bond.
The boy has no clue what the tattooed numbers on her arm represent, but he begins to understand that she has survived something. (A Romanian-Jewish boy who also stays at Madame Rose’s sizable apartment, who is force-fed Haftorah lessons, thinks the numbers represent some kind of secret agent code.)
Madame Rosa also wears a small Star of David necklace, which is most noticeable when she’s trying to get a favor from a local Muslim shopkeeper. She’s hoping he’ll give the troublesome Momo a job a few hours a week, and maybe also teach him a little bit about his faith. (He does this, and also adds in some lessons about Victor Hugo.)
Though Momo’s tough facade eventually starts to crumble, he’s still stashing away money from his job selling drugs at school and elsewhere. In time, though, he makes a pledge to Madame Rosa that he’ll never let her get stuck at a hospital, no matter how sick she appears. This becomes a relevant plot point by the end of the film.
While the characters and overall setting of “The Life Ahead” is rich with possibility, Ponti’s inability to let his mother seem anything but perfect holds everything back. The film is just begging for some oomph, but when some action does come, it is laughably forced. After a string of lifeless scenes, the downstairs neighbor, a kooky transgender prostitute from Spain, kinda barges in like a sex worker version of Kramer from “Seinfeld,” puts on a record, and starts to dance without any motivation other than “ugh, we need to put something in the trailer that looks like might inspire people to tune in.”
There’s also a recurring theme in which Momo has visions of a prowling lioness, the visual effects of which are so lousy it’s hard to care about the symbolism. Another not-meant-to-be-funny-but-it-makes-you-laugh recurrence is Madame Rosa sneaking off to her secret “Jewish lair,” a basement apartment filled with old pictures and menorahs, but the shtetl violin music that draws her there is too reminiscent of “luring the Monster” in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” for its own good.
I don’t want to say anything too negative about Sophia Loren. The woman is a legend, and it is notable that she chose to play a Holocaust survivor for what is likely her final film. But the truth of the matter is there’s really not a whole heck of a lot to recommend here. Watching the more interesting, older version of the same story is, perhaps, the better way to honor these characters.
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