A Lion in Winter: Sophia Loren in ‘The Life Ahead’

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Sophia Loren as Madame Rosa in Netflix’ ‘The Life Ahead’ directed by Edoardo Ponti (Palomar, Netflix)

Sophia Loren is as evocative a name as we’ve ever had in film. Immediately you can picture those eyes which, in a single scene, can invite you, pierce you, warn you, restore you. That deeply resolute, honeyed voice. Cheekbones that enter the room first. A husky, conspiratorial laugh. A body that drapes a housecoat, a suit or a gown in a way that appeals to persons of every sexuality. The sense that she knows herself, can laugh at herself. A woman who once famously charmed that King of Charm, Cary Grant, right into a romance but eventually nestled into a decades-long marriage to the producer who discovered her, Carlo Ponti. A regal woman who prevails (her decades-old inaccurate charge of tax evasion in Italy was finally corrected thirty-plus years later), yet in a moment’s notice, you can see the girl inside, scarred by war and poverty. The sense she could have chemistry with anyone because she is present and open and mature, but the sense that her favorite, or at least our favorite, was her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni — forever letting him spin her around on Roman streets.

While the news of 2020 has been a parade of horrors, the world of art has delivered one unexpected exhilaration after another, and certainly among these was the news that Sophia Loren would be back on the screen in a lead role. For anyone who has seen her shattering work in ‘Two Women’, hopes were lifted for a dramatic turn where she could remind us of how deeply satisfying and riveting a performance from a gifted experienced actor can be. For anyone who has ever seen her deft touch in ‘Houseboat’ and ‘Marriage Italian Style’, one could also hope for comic possibilities worthy of her.

In the just-released ‘The Life Ahead’, you get something of both. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, the film updates the Romain Gary novel ‘The Life Before Us’ and subsequent film version, ‘Madame Rosa’, which won the Academy Award for ‘Foreign Language Film’ and France’s Cesar Lead Actress Award for Simone Signoret. The French star once said of the role, in which a Jewish Parisian former sex worker cares for an Algerian Muslim troubled youth, “If I had said no (to the role) and another woman played it, I would have been sick.”

“Madame Rosa’ was set and released during particularly high tensions between Israel and Palestine that set the world on edge, and it’s blend of emotionally-engineered melodrama and global-affairs metaphor made it stand out in the art-house circuit. Well that, and also, from early press and the trailer, it appeared that Simone Signoret, so eternally sexy in ‘Room at the Top’ would be de-glammed into ‘Slattern Shelly Winters’ territory, which frankly, has a certain intentional gravitas to it that could make you either curious about the film or cautious of it.

Ponti and co-screenwriter Ugo Chiti (‘Gomorrah’) smartly bring the story to the present, and this time the gravitas-and-deglamorization of a true movie star into a world-weary woman is conveyed by the 86-year old Loren, who, rest assured, radiates an undimmed magnetism evident from the first memorable moment you see her. One of the story’s motifs is that Momo (Ibrihima Gueye), the orphaned Algerian Muslim boy Loren’s ‘Madame Rosa’ reluctantly takes into her care, has mystical glimpses of what some might call, therapeutically, his ‘spirit animal’: a powerful lioness. This indeed is why casting Loren as Rosa transcends the issues of Ponti casting his own mother, or rather adds them in a meta-layer and touching way, because if you’re looking for a Lioness, Sophia Loren would have to be first on the list. Her signature mane of hair, here somehow both movie-star iconic and yet perfectly serving the character, is styled as though maintained with habit but growing apathy and frames her face in silver-mercury layered tendrils. The handsomeness of her features seems burnished and essential; the quality usually spoken of when male actors of stature come out of retirement and the words ‘seasoned’ or ‘weathered’ are meant entirely complimentarily.

A few of Madame Rosa’s long dresses hang on her like disappointed ball gowns; as a former sex worker for decades in the Italian port city of Bari and who now makes a living caring for the children of younger sex workers, Rosa has seen a few things. If that wasn’t enough, Momo glances at Rosa’s arms and sees Nazi concentration-camp tattoo numbers. She has born so much trauma in her life you can see that despite her habitual ability to cut to the no-nonsense core of a situation, a part of her has an eye looking for an exit road. Loren has such experience and skill, and Ponti’s direction of his mother is so attentive and loving, we see all of these character shades in a single scene.

Yet despite the darkness Madame Rosa carries with her, and sometimes compartmentalizes into the time she spends in a literal basement refuge, she is kind, self-aware of her limitations, parentally concerned, practical yet generous. It’s this lighter side, accompanied by her initial stern interactions with the ferocious Momo (they ‘meet’ when he steals a bag of antique candlesticks from her at a market) that may be familiar to us from dozens of movies about reticent oldsters who, through a ‘strange turn of events’, get matched with precociously sharp-tongued youngsters. Bill Murray, Clint Eastwood, Walter Matthau, Jane Fonda have all played in films like that.

We’re familiar with the beats of this kind of story, which mirror those of a romantic comedy — reluctant pair of opposites gradually grows to like each other and find they have more in common than they thought. They teach other life lessons, and for the older actor, it usually serves as a wake-up call to the preciousness of their remaining lives. (Perhaps the best example of this film structure was not a studio comedy or indie darling but the Dardenne Brothers’ “The Kid with a Bike.” The plot structure is similar — maddening child resists the benevolence of a maternal stranger — though different in particulars. “The Kid With a Bike” is not so much concerned with mainstream, easy laughs at the culture clash between two generations, but rather serious minded about the morality of our social services as well as what it means to love sacrificially.)

Though the moments are spare, there are some humorous scenes between Rosa and Momo, whenever they briefly draw a truce, which show an underlying compassion in each. To keep the story from getting treacly and on the more rigorous side, the signs of growing affection between them are expressed tartly and in Rosa’s case, with clear-eyes.

Madame Rosa also manages to create a sense of community with others. Along with Momo, she cares for the toddler son of Lola, a transgender sex worker who used to be known in the neighborhood for her skills as a prizefighter, and Iosif, whose mother seems unable to return to care for him. The scenes with the group enjoying some light moments together suggest a sort of ‘Tales of the City’/Barbary Lane, Italian-style, though with far more economic deprivation and hard-scrabble surroundings.

We also see that Rosa has retained a a belief in Jewish tradition, or at least, in a belief in something more transcendent as a way of coping with the way life is a parade of painful events for those who live on the margins. She takes Momo to a storekeeper Muslim friend (the masterful Iranian actor Babak Karami) and asks if Momo can spend time with him; she believes she alone can’t help him become a man, much less a faithful Muslim, but she still wants to try. Loren’s performance here is exquisite, etching a woman who has forged through the world with remarkable fortitude but has spent many a day learning how to cajole a patron into doing what she needs from them. If you are familiar with Loren’s career, it’s hard not to see these scenes in the tradition of her early work from the Italian neo-realist era.

To compound that sense of contemporary social urgency and relevance, Ponti and Chiti weave in the refugee crisis and the way coastal cities in Italy have become migration hot zones. Momo is lured into drug trafficking, but like Rosa’s sex work, we see more clearly how the path to cross over into what is considered ‘criminal’ behavior soon becomes a regularly traveled avenue necessitated by the desire of society’s forgotten to survive with even a fraction of autonomy. In order to have this part of the plot make sense, we spend a considerable amount of the film’s real estate seeing Momo rise in his criminal skill set as though we’re watching a well-financed contemporary HBO or yes, Netflix, show about drug trafficking, complete with violent repercussions. And these scenes make sense in terms of using a neo-realist film approach from the past in order to portray contemporary troubles.

The problem is, though this subplot is sparse and efficient at explaining these story beats, speaking for myself, the drug trafficking world was not where I wanted to be, even if it portrayed the hypocrisies of modern life — i.e., Momo drops a dime bag on his teacher’s desk while making his rounds.

Instead, keeping in mind how rare it is to see Loren on screen, I wanted more of the back-and-forth of the relationship building of Momo and Rosa and not so much the interweaving of their separate realities. (No reflection on young Gueye, who is terrific at navigating his character’s hair-trigger anger as it melts into something more vulnerable, allowing a begrudging but growing attachment to Rosa.) As the story takes a major turn revealing Madame Rosa’s not-too-gradual disintegration, I found myself reacting to this somewhat predictable development with an “Already?” I grabbed the remote and checked to see how much of the film was left, and the answer was still quite a bit.

The film plays out in ways that challenge Momo, who we has lost his mother to violence, to consider whether he has any kind of moral code left, and if he can risk opening himself to a maternal figure again. It all makes sense, but still it may feel like the film could have benefitted from being more instinctual, and in a few moments, less programmatic, and given more time in the film to Loren’s portrayal; there are enough inexplicable loose ends you wouldn’t mind seeing woven tighter, especially if they gave you more scenes with her.

It reaches an ending that will not probably surprise you if you think about the nature of the story, and when you get there, with Loren expertly and unsentimentally showing Rosa’s alternating urgent need to negotiate the terms of even her end of life with the interruption of growing and mysterious fugue dementia states where she becomes unreachable. I was quite moved by these last scenes, for several reasons but principally these two: the story illustrates how the most underserved and oppressed among us so stressfully have to keep working hard to just stay breathing, even to the point of their last breath. The film is tackling important themes by showing how the characters recognize in each other the reality of living when oppressed and excluded, but we also sense how unnecessary that oppression is, how intolerance and lack of cooperation and social indifference results in so much suffering.

And the other reason, of course, is because the woman in the sickbed is La Loren, who for purposes of the role looks frail and mortal, and if you’re a lifelong fan like I am, your mind may wander to consider other issues related to the passage of time than those the film is centered on. (After these scenes, I found myself wanting to look up pictures of her as she is today and as she did the virtual press tour for this film, just to make sure she was okay.)

But as moving as these moments are, I strangely didn’t get the proverbial lump in my throat at the end, and trust me, it’s not become I’m too cynical. These days I’ll gladly welcome a cathartic cry, and as the modern-era cliché goes, I’ll sob at a commercial. I’m not one of those people who resents a ‘tearjerker’, if those tears are more or less earnestly and skillfully earned, especially these days — who couldn’t use a good catharsis? (Though I certainly believe if I’d seen this in a theater with other patrons, I would hear some weeping.) In some ways, this deeper sorrow, almost beyond tears, feels appropriate. At the end of one of the greatest of all neo-realist films, Satyajit Ray’s Bengali-language “Pather Panchali”, I feel like I more sigh than cry, although the sighs come from a place far within.

Ponti and the company would probably be grateful to have their film recognized for its restraint and rigor at not being just a ‘tearjerker’, given the sentimental outlines of the plot, but maybe we needed a few more scenes less restrained and the ending would work just as well, or in my case, be even more of an empathetic purgation? The moment between Madame Rosa dancing samba with Lola, the trans sex worker who is the adorably cherubic baby Babu’s mother, is a counterpoint to the harder moments, and it feels like the film needed more scenes like this building the relationship between Madame Rosa and Momo — those wry character beats when we see their defenses crumbling bit by bit.(Lola is portrayed by Abril Zamorra with a welcome burst of light and warmth. Zamorra’s energy reminded me of the young Carmen Maura in Albmodovar’s films of the eighties; she looks like she could do anything Almodovar, or any director, would ask of her.)

A little more time spent at the point where Momo finally starts smiling with Rosa would have been time well-served to gain greater emotional impact near the end when that smile starts to quiver. More simply put, a little more Momo and Rosa connecting, a little less Momo drug-dealing and scowling.

‘A Life Ahead’ is even more grounded than it might appear from its outline, but sometimes it fumbles a bit. The rich promise of backgrounding the story with Italy’s role in the contemporary refugee crisis doesn’t feel fulfilled, though one moment when Momo and Madame Rosa stumble upon a dispute between police and a migrant mother, including separation, is a powerful hint of what more might have been done. We hear that ‘social services’ would be a nightmare fate for a child, but I’d have loved to have seen Rosa actually encountering social workers or representatives of Italy’s immigration office and challenging them with her mix of hauteur and underclass plaintiveness.

The visual symbol of the lioness comes off more like symbolism that reads fine in a novel but sticks out with obviousness in a movie, and the literal depiction of the animal through CGI mismatches comes close to subverting the film’s naturalistic tone at a crucial emotional peak. There’s a secondary symbol involving an image from Rosa’s childhood that is telegraphed as a potential callback. The framing and occasional voiceovers that center the story around Momo could have been excised without diluting the power of the film’s meaning.

Still, the performances by the entire cast rise above the familiar curves and occasional puzzling story dips. Combined with tonally-perfect set design and cinematography contributions, Ponti’s direction includes several framings that are poetic and nuanced. There’s a perfect little couplet of scenes after a fearful moment occurs in the household and Momo sits with his head leaning against a wall of the children’s drawings and plinks angrily on a toy xylophone. It’s followed by the camera gliding in to overhear Momo and Iosif try to express those very fears out loud: that just as they finally have settled into a more pacific home life, it’s all about to tragically change once again. The sequence works masterfully at portraying the tragedy of so many displaced children.

Although ‘A Life Ahead’ is ultimately a sort of chamber drama and ensemble piece, of course the presence and contribution of Sophia Loren makes it a historic and welcome moment in recent film history. Forgive my quibbles if, given these circumstances, I wanted a film that would feature her onscreen in every moment, to savor as much of her talent at conveying emotional honesty and the complexities of love as possible. And I certainly hope this isn’t the last performance of Loren’s. I’d just as much love to see her in a new film as some sort of glamorous grande dame or even a romantic comedy.

But as Madame Rosa in ‘A Life Ahead,’ Sophia Loren comes into 2020 voicing, through a mature and ‘seasoned’ character, hard-won insights and offering a very relevant, contemporary reminder that life will bring suffering, but also moments of surprising grace and those moments must be just as fully experienced, even savored, as the painful realities that grab the bulk of our daily attention. Those moments of grace will be your teacher, Madame Rosa seems to say, and Sophia Loren doesn’t seem to be just playing a particular character or anything as crass as making a ‘screen comeback’ when she opens the door to Madame Rosa’s apartment and lets Momo, and by extension, us, in. It seems as though, in her intensely disciplined dedication to acting, she’s offering us a gift that could only be crafted by the most experienced maker. This generosity of spirit fuses with her non-fussy willingness to play Madame Rosa. The honest beauty of Sophia Loren, and our perception that it comes from some space deep inside her, not unlike Rosa’s basement room, makes us grateful to walk in and spend as much time as she can grant us. In 2020, we all can use the kind of shelter, even if for a couple of hours, that enables you to go on.

There’s a moment when Madame Rosa is being transported from a key location to another in a hurried manner, and she stops to turn her gaze in the direction of a crimson dawn as it slowly illuminates a harbor. At that moment, as Loren raises her magnificent profile towards the sky, she stands in for all of our lost loved ones, including parents and caretakers, who, even as they became fragile, still managed to show us how instinctual and human it is for us to want the autonomy and freedom to respond to sudden beauty. In the midst of a pandemic, Sophia Loren steps out of the film posters and classic Hollywood photo poses we’ve kept her in, and humbly, truthfully and alertly goes about the serious artistic mission of connecting the past to in order to comment on our troubled, anxious present and remind us of the power of love that can transcend all of it.

She’s uniquely and peerlessly qualified to do so.

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