The Life Ahead (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Sophia Loren still rules

Italian Netflix film “The Life Ahead” is a sentimental melodrama which is considerably elevated by the indelible screen presence of Sophia Loren, who is one of the legendary movie stars of the 20th Century. Even though the movie does not delve that much into her character’s long past, you can instantly get the sense of life and personality from her right from when she enters the screen, and that surely reminds us again that she still rules even as we are entering the third decade of the 21st century.

The story of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of a young Senegalese orphan boy named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye). Since his prostitute mother died under a rather unspecified circumstance some time ago, he has been in the custody of a kind old doctor along with other orphans, but he is not particularly happy about his recent circumstance while still struggling with the loss of his mother, and he has also kept making troubles outside despite the old doctor’s patient tolerance of that.

On one day, Momo happens to steal a valuable stuff from Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren), an old lady who happens to be one of the old doctor’s patients. After he takes Momo to Rosa’s apartment for giving her the apology from Momo, the old doctor suggests to Rosa that she should take care of Momo instead because, well, 1) the boy is in the serious need of some motherly care and 2) Rosa, who once worked as a prostitute, has been known well for taking care of the kids of fellow prostitutes in her neighborhood.

Because she has already been quite busy with taking care of two other kids and making ends meet, Rosa is initially not so eager to take Momo under her wing, but she eventually agrees to do that when the old doctor gives her an offer she cannot refuse. Not so surprisingly, Momo does not welcome this change much, but he decides to stay in Rosa’s residence after a local drug dealer, who is willing to have Momo on his payroll, advises to him that it will be easier for him to work outside if he chooses to live with Rosa for a while.

His first day at Rosa’s residence is not so pleasant to say the least, but Momo slowly gets accustomed to his new environment. Although he and Rosa do not get along that well with each other, Rosa does not interfere much with whatever he does outside, though she later introduces him to an Algerian dude who may hire Momo at his old local shop. While he surely feels awkward when he meets two other kids being taken care of by Rosa, it does not take much time for him and them to get along well with each other, and he also gets acquainted with the transgender prostitute mother of one of these two kids, who was incidentally a lightweight boxer before her gender transition (That is the main reason why nobody dares to mess with her, by the way).

Meanwhile, Momo also comes to learn of what Rosa has kept to herself for many years. She sometimes goes down to the basement of her apartment building, and he sees her spending time there without saying much. As clearly shown to us via one brief shot showing her wrist in advance, Rosa is a Holocaust survivor, and the movie and Loren wisely do not overplay that aspect while letting us guess for ourselves how much Rosa struggled and endured for survival during the World War II and its aftermath.

The movie, which is based on Romain Gary’s novel “The Life Before Us” (It was previously adapted for cinema as “Madame Rosa” (1977), which received a Best Foreign Language Oscar at that time) , sometimes falters in its depiction of the relationship development between its two lead characters, and some of its several narrative turns later in the story are not as effective as intended, but director/co-adapter Edoardo Ponti, who is the son of Loren and her late husband Carlo Ponti, keeps holding our attention via a number of genuine moments of sincerity and poignancy. When Rosa’s fragile medical condition becomes more deteriorated than before, Momo comes to care about her more than before, and we get several touching scenes as he takes some risk for letting her have some dignity before the approaching end of her life.

Even at that point, Loren, who is 86 at present, remains vivid and captivating as usual in what may be the last highlight of her exceptional acting career. Although she have not worked much since her notable supporting turn in Rob Marshall’s forgettable musical film “Nine” (2009), she demonstrates here that she is still a legend alive and well, and I can only hope that the wide availability of this movie on Netflix will lead numerous young movie fans out there to her many other highlights including Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” (1961), which incidentally garnered her a Best Actress Osar.

On the opposite, young performer Ibrahima Gueye holds his own place well next to Loren, and it is always interesting to watch how these completely different performers complement each other on the screen. The supporting cast members including Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, and Babak Karimi are also solid on the whole, and Karimi, who previously appeared in Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011) and “The Salesman” (2016), brings some human warmth to his rather functional role.

In conclusion, “The Life Ahead” will not surprise you much as being pretty familiar to the core, but it is still fairly enjoyable thanks to Ponti’s unadorned direction and the good performances from Loren, Gueye, and the other main cast members in the film. From its very first shot, we can clearly discern what it is going to do, but we gladly go along with that as beholding Loren, and it surely confirms to us on her enduring star qualities.

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