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‘The Life Ahead’: Sophia Loren commands the screen at 86

Under her son’s direction, the screen great is fierce and funny as a Holocaust survivor taking in a troubled boy.

Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) becomes the guardian of young, sullen Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) in “The Life Ahead.”
Netflix

When Sophia Loren first started appearing in films in minor roles, we were just five years out from World War II, and by the late 1950s she had become an international movie star — and here we are in 2020, and Sophia Loren is starring in her first major project in a decade, and that’s just such a gift and something to behold.

The movie is called “The Life Ahead,” and it is directed by Edoardo Ponti, who is Loren’s son, and while it is unabashedly sentimental and at times goes over the top with the symbolic melodramatic devices, it is a beautifully shot and heartwarming film, and the 86-year-old Loren is magnificent and regal and fierce and funny and beautiful and screen-commanding throughout.

“The Life Ahead” is based on the best-selling novel by Romain Gary that was adapted for the Simone Signoret-starring, 1977 foreign language film Oscar winner “Madame Rosa,” but the setting has been changed from France to the city of Bari in Puglia, Italy — the southern region that makes up the “boot” on the Italian map. (As you would imagine, the scenery is spectacular and the cinematography by Angus Hudson has a lush and timeless quality.)

Loren’s Madame Rosa is a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who now makes ends meet by watching the children of streetwalkers and various misfits who need a place to stay. Madame Rosa is a loving but strict caretaker who genuinely cares about the children living under her roof, but lately has been prone to moments of forgetfulness and episodes of wandering off, lost in a haze. She also keeps a secret room in the basement of her apartment building, where she feels safe — just as she did when she would hide under the floorboards at Auschwitz.

Madame Rosa’s “introduction” to a 12-year-old Senegalese refugee known as Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) comes when he tries to steal her purse, so she’s not exactly ready to welcome the boy with open arms when the neighborhood doctor (Renato Carpentieri), who is in over his head as the boy’s guardian, pleads with her to take him, just for a few weeks. Madame Rosa protests that she’s too old and tired to take on such a wild child, and she might not be wrong, as Momo is a sullen and rebellious presence around the house, and spends most of his time roaming the city streets, dealing drugs and partying and hanging out with the very definition of the wrong crowd.

Ah, but Momo is more troubled than troublesome, more wounded than capable of hurting others, in tried and true sentimental-movie fashion. For maybe the first time in his life, he’s in a circle of people who come to care about him, from Madame Rosa to Lola (Abril Zamora), a trans woman who lives in the same building as Madame Rosa and has a winning spirit and a big heart, to Mr. Hamil (Babak Karimi), a kindly Muslim storekeeper who gives Momo a job and teaches him about literature and the value of honest work. With the help of these almost Dickensian characters, there just might be hope for young Momo.

Sophia Loren and young Ibrahima Gueye are so natural and genuine together, it’s almost as if the camera is eavesdropping on real life. Madame Rosa is but a few steps from the end of her life’s journey while Momo is just finding his footing, but the relatively short time they walk together is a time to be treasured.