Sophia Loren Still Commands the Screen
With one of Italy’s greatest treasures making a return to the screen in The Life Ahead after a ten-year break, we can marvel at Sophia Loren’s command of the screen in a practically mute part. Her expressive face and mannerisms don’t need words to convey the world-weariness of a former prostitute working the streets of Italy. Now gone “legit,” the aged Mama Rosa has, literally, the fabled “heart of gold” by taking in the children of the younger working girls in the seaside town of Bari, Italy.
When young immigrant Momo ( the fantastic Ibrahima Gueye) from Senegal grabs her purse in a crowd and runs off, Mama Rosa doesn’t know how her life is going to be changed by that little exquisitely-hued ebony 12 year-old boy will change her life, and his as well.
The story has been adapted by Italian screenwriter Ugo Chiti and Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us.” It had previously been made into the French film “Madame Rosa” starring French great Simone Signoret. The film won the Oscar® as Best Foreign Language Film at the 1978 Academy Awards ®. It looks like this new adaptation will be high on the contender’s list for the coming awards season.
The boy Momo is an illegal immigrant who has seen tough days in his young life and doesn’t seem to trust anybody, least of all Mama Rosa. After he steals her bag, he stashes the goods, a pair of silver candlesticks that Mama Rosa needs to sell to pay the rent. By coincidence, her friend and physician Dr. Coen ( Renato Carpentieri) discovers the loot and makes Momo return it and apologize. The doctor suggests Mama Rosa take in the boy and give him a place to live. She already has two other children she is looking after. Momo is severely wary of her as she is gruff and has a no-nonsense type of personality. She’s a woman of few words, but what she says goes. Momo bunks in with another boy his age, little Iosif (Iosif Diego Pirvu).
The boy playing Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is not a professional actor. He’s fabulously appealing in a gruff way, suspicious yet vulnerable, nasty but secretly tender-hearted. It’s a part that few adult actors could handle. This boy is one fabulous naturally talented addition to the film world.
Loren once again shows us how she commands the screen with mere gestures and the raising of an eyebrow. It’s a quiet performance but she manages to convey all the horrors of being a holocaust survivor as a girl and the indignities of having to become a street walker after world War II.
It is inevitable that Momo finally melts and begins to love Madame Rosa. He looks after her and takes care of her in his own way. He becomes friendly with Lola (Avril Zamora), a transgender pal whose voice is lower than a bass fiddle. In turn they help Mama Rosa live out her life in happiness and safety.
This is a good old-fashioned drama with a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Loren has given up all pretense of being a glamorous movie star. Her hair dresser has sabotaged her by styling her coiffure with an electric egg-beater. And the costume designer has given her a slovenly look that even a washer-women wouldn’t touch. But it is all part of the whole, and Loren, little Momo, and the film work to perfection. It’s one of the best pictures of the year.
(Released by Netflix/Palomar and rated “PG-13” for thematic content, drug material involving minors, some sexual material and language.)