It’s been 10 years since acting legend Sophia Loren graced our screens. The Life Ahead is a long overdue return for the star, and the second feature film collaboration with her son, director Edoardo Ponti. (The first was in 2002’s Between Strangers.) It feels like the best kind of role for her to return to. It’s not simply a role as a grandmother, which many actresses of her class are often stuck with, but rather, she plays a strong, independent woman. One who has experienced horrors – every line on her face tells a story. A woman with an air to her that’s still full of mysteries and stories whose pages are waiting to be read, not unlike the actress herself. The character of Madame Rosa is a holocaust survivor who’s kept her secrets hidden in a safe place. Until, one day, she finds someone she finally feels she can show them to.
Set in a seaside Italian city, a young boy canvases a market. He spies an elderly woman, an easy target to rob. He steals her purse containing antique candlesticks, something she could have sold to pay the month’s rent. The film is told through the thief Momo’s (Ibrahima Gueye) perspective and we learn that he’s an orphan, his mother died when he wasn’t much older than he is now. He lives with a doctor (Renato Carpentieri), but that won’t be for long. When the doctor discovers Momo stole from Madame Rosa, he takes him over to apologize. The doctor also asks Rosa for a favour – take care of the boy for a few weeks. As you can imagine, that request is met with hostility. She seems almost offended at the suggestion to take care of a child she believes is awful to the core. She’s a tough negotiator, but eventually, they strike a deal and Momo has a new home. But Momo’s stubbornness is something him and MadameRosa have in common as he’s not too keen on this arrangement either.
A woman being stuck with a kid she doesn’t want isn’t a new narrative – Gloria (1980) coming to mind prominently – but it’s how the relationship develops between these two characters that makes The Life Ahead especially memorable. Madame Rosa’s home is a refuge for the children of prostitutes. Aside from Momo, she takes care of two others regularly and it feels very much like a home. But Momo has a hard time adjusting to what he considers a dump more than a refuge. Under Madame Rosa’s nose, Momo is proving himself to be a skilled drug dealer. Since his mother died, he’s been living by his own terms; however, he’s growing up too fast. He’s still a kid who needs guidance and nurture. The loss of his mother and its effects on him manifest in the form of visions of a lioness, symbolic of a lack of protection and love. It’s his safety net, and Madame Rosa has her own, too. The similarities between them reveal themselves as slowly as the process of allowing the other in. And when they do finally open up to each other, it’s absolutely delightful – full of warmth and full of love. Even though Momo may not understand everything Madame Rosa recalls to him, he listens as they are both holding on to fading memories.
If for some reason Italy doesn’t submit The Life Ahead as their International Feature Oscar bid, the performances are sure to take notice, especially for Loren. She’s as commanding of a presence on screen as ever, playing a tough woman who takes no shit. A woman with a hard exterior that we slowly see crumble with affecting vulnerability. It’s evident that her experiences in the war still haunt her character as she suffers from crippling PTSD mixed perhaps with early signs of a memory disorder. In these moments, Loren exudes immense fragility in a performance that’s subdued yet powerful. Gueye is absolutely exceptional in his first ever feature film role. It’s impossible to match Loren’s skill, but Gueye comes darn close with the intensity of an old soul. It also must be mentioned that the most surprising aspect of the film is the appearance of trans actress Abril Zamora. She plays Lola, a prostitute whose child Rosa takes care of while she’s on the job. A trans female character actually being played by a trans woman feels like a rarity these days, so it’s a refreshing addition, especially because her transness isn’t made into a big declaration or used to create conflict. It’s simply discussed once in a very matter of fact way as though to appease our suspicions.
The Life Ahead will hopefully catch the eye and hearts of many when it goes to streaming on Netflix next month. A sincere, hopeful film that explores the similar pain two people carry in their hearts and how that pain manifests and leads to a beautiful bond.
The Life Ahead will open in select theaters in early November then stream exclusively on Netflix November 13.