Sentimental Netflix drama The Life Ahead finds its heart in star Sophia Loren: Review
Sophia Loren is by far the best reason to see Edoardo Ponti’s new Italian-language drama, out now on Netflix. But what a reason it is: Though at 86 she may no longer be the ripe screen goddess of yesteryear, time only adds gravitas to her turn as a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who reluctantly agrees to take in an orphaned Senegalese street kid named Momo (vivid newcomer Ibrahima Gueye).
Working from the 1975 French novel La Vie Devant Soi, Ponti (who is also Loren’s son, by the late film producer Carlo Ponti), frames Life as a mournful flashback through Momo's eyes, centered on the fateful moment he meets Loren's Madam Rosa — by snatching her bag in a public market. It's hardly his first misdemeanor; at 12, he's already an inveterate hustler and scrapper, stubbornly averse to well-meaning grownups' many attempts to rehabilitate him.
Even the goodwill of his temporary guardian, a gruff but kindhearted elderly physician (Renato Carpentieri) has begun to fray; when he marches Momo over to Rosa's house to ask forgiveness for his petty thievery — the grudging "Sorry" she drags out of him sounds more like a schoolyard insult than an apology — the good doctor sees an opportunity. She already cares for the kids of several other call girls; couldn't she possibly make room for one more?
Her answer, unsurprisingly, is a firm no grazie, but needs (and movie plots) must. So Momo soon carves a space at Casa Rosa alongside two other boys, though his hard shell hardly cracks on contact: Scared and furious, his default mode is bravado; one tiny, prickly pugilist against the world. Only memories of his beloved mother seem to reach whatever tender spot remains in him — unless Madam, of course, can learn to turn the key.
A series of unhurried, gently episodic moments follow, wafting from Rosa's loose-knit clan of young wards and working girls — including a transgender former prizefighter — to Momo's part-time job assisting an affable shopkeeper (A Separation's great Babak Karimi) and his more illicit errands for a shady local businessman (Massimiliano Ross).
Ponti (Between Strangers) captures it all fondly, though the thinness of the storyline tends to show through; Madame Rosa, particularly, remains a mystery, the blurred numbers tattooed on her forearm shorthand for a traumatic history whose specifics viewers mostly have to take on faith; so little is examined or explained. Instead it's the smaller moments shared by the movie's flawed, humble characters — Loren twirling to old samba records in magic-hour sunlight; Karimi's Hamil teaching Momo how to reweave a rug — and its immersive Italian setting that make Life worth its sweet meandering time. Grade: B