Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us (La vie devant soi) received its first big-screen treatment back in 1977 under the title of Madame Rosa, with Simone Signoret playing the eponymous role. The film was a big hit in its native France and even won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
In this new version adapted from the same novel, The Life Ahead is particularly notable for the legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren’s return to the big screen. It was also her first time in a decade since appearing in Rob Marshall’s musical drama Nine (2009).
And what a comeback, indeed. At 86, Sophia Loren still has what it takes to command a great screen presence, playing the role of Madame Rosa made famous by the late Simone Signoret 43 years ago. A Holocaust survivor and former prostitute, she uses her home as an unofficial daycare centre for the children of sex workers.
One day, her old friend Dr Coen (Renato Carpentieri) arrives in her place to return the candlesticks that the orphaned Senegalese boy Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) snatched earlier. He demands the kid to apologise to her and later, the doctor personally ask her to take in Momo for the time being. Rosa hesitates at first but agrees anyway, placing Momo under her care along with two other children including one from her best friend and sex worker Lola (transgender actress Abril Zamora), who lives in the same building.
In the beginning, Rosa and Momo dislike each other, with the latter has trouble getting along with everyone. He’s always angry and sulking and prefers to spend more time making money selling drugs in the street. Still, Rosa never gives up on him as she asks her friend Hamil (Babak Karimi), who runs an antique shop to give Momo something to do while helping her to look after him from time to time.
At first glance, The Life Ahead has the look and feel of a conventional melodrama about the love-hate relationship between a tough and rebellious orphaned boy and the elderly guardian. At the hand of a lesser director, we might end up with a film filled with mawkish sentimentality and all the mush typically seen in this kind of genre. Sure, the story offers nothing new or fresh and it was actually all familiar stuff.
And yet, it’s the kind of familiarity done right with Edoardo Ponti’s (son of Sophia Loren) better-than-expected measured direction. Clocking at just 94 minutes, The Life Ahead moves in an unhurried yet confident pace that draws us into the story and characters without relying on big, dramatic or overamplified emotional moments just to get the point across.
Ponti, who co-adapted the screenplay alongside Ugo Chiti, manage to balance the drama and comedy with the subtle coming-of-age undertone. If there’s any nitpicking about the way the story is told, perhaps some viewers might point out the lack of deep conflict and real-life complexity between Rosa and Momo.
But even with the story leaning towards a more softening tone, I still find the overall narrative works well in its favour. Not to forget the cast helps to elevate this otherwise hackneyed piece of drama, beginning with Sophia Loren’s steely and world-weary portrayal of an elderly caretaker. She exudes enough no-nonsense charm and personality into her role, even though Loren isn’t exactly the lead here. Her comeback performance is no doubt the kind of role that deserved some award attention.
Speaking of lead, the protagonist of this film would be Momo played by newcomer Ibrahima Gueye. He performs both well and natural enough in his role while her chemistry with Loren is among the best things in The Life Ahead. Supporting actors are just as noteworthy, with Abril Zamora and Babak Karimi made quite a lasting impression in their respective roles.
Currently streaming on Netflix, The Life Ahead‘s overall fine performances and Edoardo Ponti’s direction makes this Italian drama a must-see film in 2020.