The last time most of us saw Sophia Loren on screen, we barely saw her at all: not just because her role in 2009’s star-spangled musical deadweight “Nine” was so minor, but because Rob Marshall’s film was so enamored of the shimmery silver radiance generated by its various luminaries that it often forgot to look at them directly. That’s not a failing of “The Life Ahead,” her first feature-length starring vehicle in 16 years, and that alone makes it something of an event. That extraordinary face, regal and leonine as she heads into her mid-eighties, is so generously and adoringly cradled by the camera, it sometimes seems she has to be yanked out of scenes entirely for the narrative to progress.
Who can blame director Edoardo Ponti? His star is not only a last-of-a-generation icon, but his own mother: The film, modest and often maudlin on its own storytelling terms, runs on a current of beyond-the-screen devotion that makes it compelling. Without that unquantifiable x-factor presence in the frame, it’s hard to say what reason this Netflix release would really have for being.
For one thing, French writer Romain Gary’s popular novel “The Life Before Us” has been filmed before — and better — as “Madame Rosa,” a 1977 Oscar-winner that deftly wove tearjerker tactics around a steelier, philosophically inquisitive core. It also boasted a devastating late Simone Signoret performance in the title role, as a Parisian former prostitute and Holocaust survivor turned guardian to orphans of streetlife: Three decades younger then than Loren is now, she imbued the character with a vivid, caustic-to-be-kind weariness that is best not imitated. Ponti and Loren, to their credit, haven’t tried, refashioning both the novel and its protagonist along more conventionally sentimental lines, and coating its quiet tragedy in a thick marinara layer of Italian melodrama.
Things have been warmed up in more ways than one. Cinematographer Angus Hudson floods shot after shot in buttery sunlight, as the film relocates its story from 1970s Paris to present-day Bari, a humid, careworn Pugliese port city serving as a gateway to the continent for a diverse stream of migrants and refugees. Overlaying Gary’s study of social marginalization and post-Holocaust trauma with the context of the European refugee crisis is an apt and considered choice, though bar a passing, peripheral shot of immigration police in violent action, the filmmakers mostly count on their audience to intuit its impact on the characters at hand.
Luckily, in young co-lead Ibrahima Gueye, they’ve happened on a second face richly expressive enough to carry nuances the script tends to leave implicit or simply unpicked. As Momo, a motherless Senegalese preteen living by his wits on Bari’s meanest streets, he meets the camera’s gaze with calm, unprecocious ease, driving proceedings with enough assurance that the glib, irregular voiceover that Ponti and co-writer Ugo Chiti have given him feels entirely extraneous, as if only half-scrapped from a previous draft. “Some say that everything is written, that you can’t change anything,” he intones at the outset, as we encounter Momo skulking around a dilapidated apartment building, dashing and locking himself into the basement when a resident catches sight of him; Gueye’s piercing presence often rather nimbly overrides what’s written.
We rewind to six months earlier, when Momo snatches the shopping bag of the elderly Madame Rosa (Loren) at a crowded street market. Made to return it and tersely apologize by kindly local doctor Coen (Renato Carpentieri), he doesn’t make the best of first impressions on the frail but formidable octogenarian, already a foster mother to two young boys left in her care by working girls — including cheery transgender neighbor Lola (Abril Zamora). Neither Rosa nor Momo is thrilled when Coen arranges for him to join her makeshift family; at first they largely leave each other to their own devices, which for Momo include dealing drugs for a local crime lord.
But as the summer stretches on, it becomes increasingly clear that the guardian needs some guarding herself. Declining physical health and the unwelcome creep of dementia frequently send Madame Rosa into catatonic spells: A secret, bric-a-brac-filled den in her building’s cellar is her regular sanctuary when her mind is overrun by PTSD from childhood horrors in Auschwitz. As Madame Rosa comes to see her thorny, reluctant charge as her last defense against hospitalization, she in turn offers him a lifeline out of the underworld; pride is swallowed and hearts opened on both sides.
It’s an arc that can hardly fail to be moving, even as the screenplay strips out much of the novel’s (and previous film’s) complicating tensions and subplots. Lip service is paid to Gary’s exploration of the relationship between Madame Rosa’s Judaism and Momo’s notional Islamic faith (which carried more charge against a backdrop of Arab-Israeli conflict), but without the source material’s ironic payoff. A delicate engagement with the euthanasia debate likewise falls by the wayside. In its place we get a more straightforwardly cathartic climax of escape and release, as “The Life Ahead” balances crowdpleasing feelgood energy against weepy inevitability — complete with a custom-written, marmalade-sticky Diane Warren ballad (in Italian, no less) as the credits roll.
If these cuts and compromises disappoint admirers of previous versions, however, they’re unlikely to trouble anyone turning up (or tuning in) for what is undeniably the new film’s prime selling point: the chance to see a vital, long-dormant movie star not only in a rare gilded showcase, but in the kind of floridly emotive part that best served her at her career peak. At first blush, the sheer exhilaration of watching Loren is so immense that one initially forgets to parse her acting at all — which is either the price or privilege of genuinely iconic status.
But if there are points in “The Life Ahead” where the nerves of actor and character may well be reflecting and serving each other, Loren’s turn builds in grace and soulful tenor as the filmmaking submits to its own most old-fashioned, borderline-kitsch instincts, Gabriel Yared’s gelato-thick score and all. Given how Loren has rationed her big-screen appearances over the years, there’s an unavoidable parallel poignancy in watching her Madame Rosa trace over the memories of the life behind that storied stare: Contrary to its title, this is a film steeped in the past, for actor, character and audience alike.