Friendship is often found in the most unexpected places. That is what is at the heart of Edoardo Ponti’s new Netflix film The Life Ahead, starring his mother — Italian cinema icon Sophia Loren in her first role in over five years. Based on the 1975 book “The Life Before Us” and previously adapted into an Oscar-winning film Madame Rosa in 1977, this latest adaptation is a fitting vehicle for Loren to remind us of her acting prowess and the fact that she will forever ever be a legend on the big screen.
The Life Ahead tells the story of Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren), a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor, who takes in the children of other prostitutes who need help or can’t take care of their kids. Madama Rosa is a fixture in the community and a solid figure who does what she can to help a subset of people who often go neglected in society. She has had a rough life, and her past trauma follows here and can be seen in the worn and weathered face of Sophia Loren — the beautiful face of a woman who has seen a lot.
One day while out at the market, Madame Rosa is robbed by a young boy. Unbeknownst to him, he has put her in a bind with this month’s rent, and she happens to be friends with his elderly doctor caregiver. The young boy, Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), is originally from Senegal, but he too has lived a rough life in his young twelve years. Momo’s mother was killed by his father when she refused to continue as a sex worker — so he has no family and sense of identity. To mask that insecurity and uncertainty, Momo hides behind his rough exterior and takes a way by becoming a drug dealer.
But after the robbery, the good doctor takes Momo to apologize to Madame Rosa and ask if she could temporarily take him to get social services off his back. Of course, Momo is not initially on board, and he butts heads with the straight-forward, take-no-stuff Madame Rosa and the other young boy in the house. As time goes on, Madama Rosa decides that Momo needs some positive male and Muslim influence in his life, so she gets him a job helping out an old friend. But the allure of fast money and the drug dealing lifestyle tugs at Momo. Meanwhile,
Madame Rosa starts to go into these fugue states where she blacks out or disappears. Kids being kids assume that she is living a double life as a spy, but the incidents become more frequent and intense. Over time, Momo begins to let his guard down and open up as he forms a bond with the other boys and Madame Rosa, vowing to protect her until the end.
The Life Ahead is a tender look at the bonds formed between individuals from different backgrounds with vastly different backstories. It’s the story of the friendships we can form when we let our guards down and let others in — this alone is enough to make the Holocaust survivor backstory irrelevant overkill and more of an afterthought for this modern remake.
The film is also a poignant look at growing old, dementia, wanting to go out on our own terms, dealing with our past trauma, and how we (and those around us) deal with our failing memory when our minds start to betray us. This story is so delicately brought to life through the two leads’ raw and believable performances — a screen legend in her 80s and a young newcomer. Both give such moving performances that so embody the characters they are portraying. Gueye is so raw, and his talent is undeniable. And he feeds so naturally off of Loren’s lead when they share the screen together. He’s definitely a natural, and the chemistry between the actors is so believable and sympathetic. Loren delivers such a vulnerable and emotive performance — reminding viewers that she’s still got it.
Overall, The Life Ahead is evocative and tugs on viewers’ heartstrings while immersing them in a gritty hard-knock world but still leaves us hopeful.