The Life Ahead Is More Than Just Sophia Loren
The Life Ahead is a movie about an elderly Jewish woman who reluctantly takes in a young Senagalese orphan after he tries to rob her. Don’t feel alone if that worries you. There are dozens, potentially hundreds of narrative and cinematic traps and tropes to stumble into with such a cliche-ridden premise. Fear not: The Life Ahead may hit a few predictable story beats, but it overcomes its pedestrian plot by repeatedly redefining itself through its richly textured portrait of a life in limbo.
Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead is clearly designed as a star vehicle for Sophia Loren, the aging Italian and Hollywood superstar and one of only two living members of the American Film Institute’s Top 50 Greatest Screen Legends (Sidney Poitier is the other). And as the gruff-but-loving caretaker, Loren brings a career of acting lessons to bear on Madame Rosa. She speaks seldomly of her holocaust survival but wears it in every second of her physical performance. The archetype is traditionally filled by a man, but in Loren’s hands, Rosa simultaneously has sharper edges and a softer heart. It is a performance worthy of her return to the silver screen.
And if the movie finds itself deserving of the great legend’s presence, it’s only because it extends beyond Madame Rosa - and beyond even her relationship with the 12-year-old Momo. The cinematic manifestation of “it takes a village,” The Life Ahead devotes equal time to Momo’s relationship with each adult in his life. There’s Hamil, who acts as a philosophical father and religious guide for a child who didn’t know he was Muslim until recently. And Dr. Cohen, the friend of Rosa who looked after Momo as a foster parent for the last few years, but whose capacity for parenthood Momo has outgrown. And Ruspa, a local drug dealer grooming the boy. And with Madame Rosa comes her neighbor, Lola, who fosters a cheeky but loving friendship with Momo. None of these adults can properly raise the orphaned street kid; but together, they’re able to give him the space and the opportunity to figure life out for himself.
And in that sense, the film is less about the life ahead and more about a life in flux. Ponti lingers on the small moments, the ones where each adult realizes they get more from their relationship with Momo than he gets from them. And in a poetic finale, he reaches for something transcendent, only to find beauty in the prosaic. Beyond Loren, Ibrahima Gueye carries the film on his rail-thin shoulders, and both Abril Zamora and Babak Karimi inject energy into the periodic lulls as Lola and Hamil, respectively. But it always comes back to Loren. If this is the last time we see the icon on screen, The Life Ahead is a fitting farewell.