Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 12th, 2020
The Life Ahead (“La vita davanti a sé”) (Edoardo Ponti, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
High melodrama meets social justice in Italian director Edoardo Ponti’s The Life Ahead, based on French author Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us (“La vie devant soi“). Starring Ponti’s mother, the great Sophia Loren (Arabesque), as Madame Rosa, a former prostitute who takes in children and orphans of working women unable to care for them, the movie undercuts its finer moments with excessively maudlin sentiment and an overbearing score, yet still proves moving and effective where and when it counts. Joining Loren is newcomer Ibrahima Gueye, as Momo, a Senegalese immigrant whose initial benefactor decides he would do better under Rosa’s care. Since Momo is also the kid who has just stolen a precious antique from her hands, pushing her down to get it, she’s not so thrilled. But slowly she warms to him, and he to her. Life is lived, lessons are learned, and love triumphs, albeit in a bittersweet way.
The film is at its best in its portrayal of a tolerant world that accepts people regardless of race, faith, profession, class or gender identification. One of Rosa’s other charges is a boy whose transgender parent, Lola (Abril Zamora), is actually fairly present, though busy enough that she prefers to board him with the older woman. She is a delightful character, vibrant in a way that elevates the text above its more obvious moments; there are other members of the ensemble who similarly enrich the story. These include a Muslim shopkeeper who is close friends with the Jewish Rosa, and a drug lord who takes Momo under his wing (to the boy’s initial delight, and later regret). It is when he explores the details of the neighborhood that Ponti (Coming & Going) does his finest work.
Everyone has a past, though for some it is more fraught than others. Rosa, as it turns out, is a Holocaust survivor, at times taking refuge in the basement of her building, surrounded by artifacts of long-ago years. Momo, initially antagonistic and more interested in making a quick buck selling drugs on the street, nevertheless comes to appreciate his new caretaker, seeing in her buried trauma something akin to his own. And so they bond, each becoming quite fond of the other, even as inevitable tragedy looms just down the road.
Loren is a pleasure to watch, and Gueye more than holds his own. Their rapport builds gently and believably over the course of the film’s brisk 94 minutes. If only Ponti trusted them to carry the narrative without the oppressive music to remind us of his seriousness. Neither he nor we need it. Let the actors act, and let us enjoy. Perhaps in his own “life ahead,” he will show greater restraint. For now, he still delivers something more than watchable, along with a chance to see his mother once more on screen. For that, we are grateful.