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A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews: “The Life Ahead” (2020)

Sophia Loren, the legendary Italian actress who once defined international glamour in Hollywood returns to the silver screen in her first movie in a decade. “The Life Ahead” co-written and directed by Loren’s younger of her two sons Edoardo Ponti, is premiering exclusively on Netflix. Loren’s comeback performance is no doubt worthy of award attention at the Oscars and while Sophia Loren’s return to the movies, is an absolute cause for celebration. It also causes the film itself to be overshadowed by her return as devoted cinephiles will be up in arms to see her back as a leading starlet. As very well as they should be, because Loren is a revelation as her character Madame Rosa who is a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute, that uses her home as the caretaker for unwanted children to drug dealers and sex workers. Clocking in at just 94 minutes, it moves in an unhurried yet confident pace. I just wish Netflix would have provided the original Italian language track, instead of the dubbed English which is awfully rendered. “The Life Ahead” is so melodramatic and very by the book, it’s as if Ponti had watched every Oscar nominated movie and made one that had just all the right elements to appeal to Oscar voters. If anything, at least we will always have Sophia Loren’s revolutionary performance that reminds us what a graceful actress and screen presence she was and is. 

This past weekend (Friday the 13th) saw the release of yet another Netflix film that is getting Oscar buzz for it’s lead star. The star in which I’m referring to, is Sophia Loren, a veteran actress of the silver screen and Italian great who once practically defined international glamour in Hollywood. The legendary Italian actress’ return to the big screen is her first in a decade since appearing in Rob Marshall’s musical drama “Nine” from 2009.

And what a comeback it is for Loren. At 86, she still has what it takes to command the screen and provide a great screen presence. Loren plays the role of Madame Rosa, which originated from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us”. The novel received its first big-screen treatment in 1977 under the title of “Madame Rosa”, with Simone Signoret playing the title role. The film was a big hit in its native France and even won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Sophia Loren’s Madame Rosa is a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute, that uses her home as the caretaker for the children of unwanted children to drug dealers and sex workers. She is a loving but strict caretaker who genuinely cares about the children living under her roof, but lately she has been prone to being forgetful, experiencing episodes of wandering off and being lost in a haze. It’s heartbreaking to see that she 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 is introduced to a 12-year-old Senegalese refugee known as Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) when he tries to steal Madame Rosa’s purse. It only leaves her hesitant to welcome the boy with open arms when the neighborhood doctor (Renato Carpentieri), who finds himself in over his head as the boy’s guardian and pleads with Rosa to take him in, just for a few weeks. Momo is a sullen and rebellious presence and spends most of his time roaming the city streets, by dealing drugs, partying and hanging out with thieves and drug dealers.

But of course Momo is more troubled than troublesome in that 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. All the way down 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. 

“The Life Ahead”, is co-written and directed by Loren’s younger of her two sons Edoardo Ponti, in their third collaboration together. Perhaps that’s why “The Life Ahead” has the feel of a family affair and a celebration of not just Loren’s contribution to this film, but the life and career she has created for herself. 

Sophia Loren has a steely and world-weary portrayal of the elderly caretaker. She exudes a no-nonsense charm and personality into her role. Her comeback performance is no doubt worthy of award attention at the Oscars. While Sophia Loren’s return to the movies, is an absolute cause for celebration. It also causes the film to be overshadowed by her return as devoted cinephiles will be up in arms for her return. 

While Loren is mainly credited, it’s easy to declare Momo played by newcomer Ibrahima Gueye as the film’s lead. He performs naturally enough in his role and in his chemistry with Loren. Sophia Loren and the young Ibrahima Gueye are so natural and genuine together, it’s almost as if we’re watching real life unfolding. Gueye, easily alternates between looking like a hard-case delinquent and a happy young kid when he gives that often concealed smile. He is a kid on the rise in Hollywood, keep an eye out on him. 

“The Life Ahead” follows the formula and you know exactly where it’s headed. From Momo a troubled teen to Rosa taking him in and trying to change his life and never giving up on him. While it gets to unabashedly sentimental and can go over the top with it’s melodrama. It is a beautifully shot and heartwarming film, and Loren is magnificent, fierce, funny, beautiful and screen commanding throughout. Even with the story leaning towards a more softening and predictable tone. The narrative works well in its favor, as the cast helps to elevate the drama as Ponti, manages to balance the drama and comedy with a subtle touch of a coming of age undertone. 

What’s different about “The Life Ahead” is that Rosa and Momo never really talk things out. Such as the scene where Momo and Rosa are washing dishes and Momo notices numbers tattooed on her forearm. He doesn’t understand what those numbers mean and she’s not about to explain it to him. But what the two can instantly sense about each other, where communication is not needed is that they’ve both been hurt and their friendship becomes based on their unspoken understanding, along with allowing themselves some willingness to let each other into their lives and in giving each other some space. 

My only real set back and disappointment is mostly targeted toward Netflix. That I wished they would have provided the original Italian language track, instead of the dubbed English which is awfully rendered. It’s so bad that it made me feel disjointed from the picture. 

Clocking in at just 94 minutes, it moves in an unhurried yet confident pace that draws us into the story and characters without relying on over-amplified emotional moments. I only wish I wasn’t left feeling like I knew exactly where all the melodrama was going. Ponti does such a good job tugging at your heart that you kind of forgive, how obviously formulaic it is. It’s the kind of melodrama familiarity that’s done right but a bit to on the nose. It’s so by the book, it’s as if Ponti had watched every Oscar nominated movie and made one that had just all the right elements to appeal to Oscar voters. If nothing else presented here appeals to you, then at least we will always have Sophia Loren’s performance as Madame Rosa. It’s a revolutionary performance that reminds us what a graceful actress and screen presence she was and is. 

GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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