The last time we saw screen goddess Sophia Loren in a major motion picture was 2009’s woebegone “Nine,” but you can be forgiven for having forgotten director Rob Marshall’s catastrophic musical adaptation of Fellini’s “8 1/2” because the brain often blocks out traumatic experiences like that as a defense mechanism. (Imagine a movie in which even Daniel Day-Lewis is dreadful.) Such an exit was unbecoming of a legend, which is one of many reasons to be grateful for “The Life Ahead,” a new Netflix film that provides the 86-year-old icon with her meatiest role in decades. It’s a tough-minded tear-jerker offering an old-fashioned take on contemporary concerns, tapping into emotions as enduring as its leading lady.
Loren stars as Madame Rosa, a former streetwalker struggling to make ends meet in the Italian seaside village of Bari. After retiring from the world’s oldest profession, Rosa wound up running a sort of ad hoc day care center (I guess technically more an “evening care” center) for the children of sex workers. One of those kids grew up to be police chief, which is why local law enforcement turns a blind eye to her operation which has become known in the neighborhood as “a refuge.” She first meets young Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) when he snatches her purse. The sneering, foulmouthed 12-year-old is a Senegalese immigrant whose mother was murdered by her pimp, and it would appear to all observers that this kid is already a hardened hoodlum headed for a bad end.
You probably know where this is going, even if you haven’t read “The Life Before Us,” Romain Gary’s 1975 novel from which the movie was adapted, or seen its previous screen incarnation “Madame Rosa,” the 1978 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film in which Simone Signoret played the title role. The tough old broad and the crafty street urchin is a mismatch as old as movies themselves (my personal favorite spin on the story is probably John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” from 1980) and the pleasures of “The Life Ahead” lie in how confidently the film embraces these timeless tropes with just a few slight tweaks to bring the story into the present day.
What’s nice is that they never talk things out. Momo doesn’t understand what those numbers tattooed on Madame Rosa’s arm mean and she’s not about to explain it for him. But what the two can almost instantly sniff out about each other is that they’ve both been hurt, probably irreparably, and their friendship becomes based on this unspoken understanding, along with a willingness to allow each other some space. You keep waiting for the movie to turn maudlin, for some blubbery, histrionic crying jag to magically heal everything, but the characters instead keep quiet and often cover for each other, even when they shouldn’t.
Loren commands the screen with the same leonine ferocity she brought to her Oscar-winning role in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” almost 60 years ago, de-glammed and down-and-out but with an unmistakably regal bearing. The screen legend finds a fascinating rhythm with the novice actor Gueye, who’s able to alternate between looking like a hard-case delinquent and a beaming baby boy depending on when he flashes an oft-concealed, megawatt smile. She’s also got great comic chemistry with transgender advocate Abril Zamora, who co-stars here as one of the working girls and kickstarts a delightful cross-generational dance number that feels like an aside but at the same time so much more.
Director Edoardo Ponti should know a thing or two about his star’s maternal mannerisms. He’s the youngest of Loren’s sons with the late producer Carlo Ponti, whose credits included movie milestones from “La Strada” to “Doctor Zhivago” with a lot of Antonioni in between. “The Life Ahead” has the handsome cinematography and sturdy, crowd-pleasing qualities of a certain kind of international film that used to be boffo arthouse box office over here. (In an alternate timeline it would be selling out for six months straight at the West Newton Cinema.) Yet the movie never quite slips into sentimentality, allowing these characters a measure of privacy that makes the inevitable melodrama all the more moving.
“The Life Ahead” is now streaming on Netflix.