An Orphan Story (Film Review: “The Life Ahead”)

Sophia Loren returns magnificently in this story of an aging prostitute and Holocaust survivor’s bond with a young African orphan on the streets of Bari.

SnapShot Plot

Can the world ever have enough of Sophia Loren? In any language, the answer is a resounding NO! And it apparently took the encouragement of her son Edoardo Ponti, who directed the fine The Life Ahead, to convince his mother to return to the screen after a 10-year hiatus from acting.  

In this moving Italian language film (adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 book, The Life Before Us) Loren plays an aging former prostitute and Holocaust survivor called Madame Rosa, who for years has taken in the children of young prostitutes unable to be reliable mothers while working ‘the trade’, and in the process has actually raised several kids to adulthood. Widely respected in her rough, seaside Barese neighborhood, Madame Rosa is nobody’s fool, yet her heart is generous. So when her longtime friend and personal physician begs her to take in a young Senegalese Orphan known as Momo, she acquiesces after a considerable amount of haggling. Momo (in a stunning debut performance by Ibrahima Gueye) has grown up without a mother and is poised to embark on a full-fledged life of crime unless something – or someone – intervenes to literally save his future. Living under the roof of Madame Rosa means following her rules and learning to share her apartment with two other young boys in her care. Momo at first bristles against Rosa’s authoritarian tendencies, especially while he seems to be advancing in the illicit world of crime he’s keeping a secret from her. Ever so slowly, though, you can glimpse the lonely child desperate for a mother’s love, whose curiosity about his mysterious caretaker eventually gives way to begrudging respect, and finally, a profound devotion that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Parting Shot

The Life Ahead is the second film adaptation of this story, the first being the 1977 movie Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret (whose performance landed her the César Award for Best Actress). And much like that earlier film, this new production errs along the same lines and is similarly saved from mawkishness by its leading lady’s impeccably resonant performance.

The Life Ahead’s co-written screenplay by Edoardo Ponti and Ugo Chiti tried not to tread too clumsily through some predictably sentimental tropes, to their credit. For example, when Madame Rosa implores Momo to prevent the doctors from putting her in the hospital, she says, “You’re a little shit, but I know you keep your word.” And when Momo and the downstairs neighbor Lola, a trans sex worker played beautifully by Abril Zamora, realize that Rosa is deteriorating physically and mentally, the burden of worry and care shared between them forges an even wider feeling of a family unit so sorely lacking in this boy’s life. Additionally, Rosa’s Holocaust back-story is handled subtly, without flashbacks or tragic personal anecdotes, relying instead on her behavior becoming more unmoored from reality. To the consternation of those who care for her, including eventually Momo. In a similar vein, Momo’s own tragic past is not dwelled on and instead is treated in cursory explanations of his predicament or his tendencies.

Yet still, the movie does feel at times predictably sentimental, but that may be unavoidable for the very nature of the material. Although also unavoidable are the comparisons to yet another film which is quite close to perfect, the late great John Cassavetes’ 1980 classic, Gloria, starring his wife, the incomparable Gena Rowlands (remade several years later with Sharon Stone to lesser effect.)

A word about Sophia Loren. Edoardo Ponti wrote this part for his mother, but his directorial conceit didn’t insist that La Bella Mamma looks great in every fathomable way. On the contrary, here you have a son who’s convinced his mother’s raw talent and gravitas are tons more important than making sure she’s lit well, costumed and made up to hide the ravages of time. Sophia Loren has always claimed she never had any ‘work done’ and by the looks of this performance, I’d attest to her credibility. What she brings to this and her impressive lexicon is an intelligence, a palpable inner and outer beauty, and a deeply honest and personal commitment to the role and the project. She’s a legend who still, after all these years, seems to bring all heart and no ego to her work. And that’s why the world will never tire of her.

The Life Ahead is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer:


  • Judy Levy says:

    Really enjoyed both performances. I agree that Sophia made no effort to ‘gloss’ her personal appearance for the part. She had a genuineness to her in her performance.
    Thanks for reviewing this!

    • Norma says:

      Yes, absolutely! She’s a treasure, and this young man totally met her enormous talent with a special gift of his own! Thank you for your kind comment.

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