A screen legend returns for this film about people existing for each other
In getting ready to review The Life Ahead, I couldn’t help but reflect on the remarkable career of its esteemed leading lady. The first lady of Italian cinema, Sophia Loren now only works whenever she feels like it, which is a privilege rightfully earned after such a collection of films to her name, each one proving her to be both an actress and a star. On my shelf are two of my favorite films of Loren’s: 1962’s Five Miles to Midnight and 1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong. Both made when Loren was atop of the A-list, the two vastly different films play on her beauty, while also calling on the actress to venture beyond it. In the former, a psychological thriller co-starring Anthony Perkins, Loren gives a tension-filled performance as a desperate woman trying to stay one step ahead of danger. Meanwhile in the latter, the actress throws herself into the role of a cruise ship stowaway trying to sneak into Hawaii with a performance showcasing a knack for comedy timing and slapstick, which Loren wholeheartedly throws herself into. While neither film is particularly well-remembered today, they nonetheless remain sterling examples of the level of versatility, commitment and focus Loren always brought to her work, coupled with that unmistakable mystique that happened when she appeared on the screen. Fifty years on from her initial film debut, The Life Ahead proves that both the mystique and talent are as alive as ever.
In The Life Ahead, a troubled Muslim immigrant orphan named Momo (Ibrahami Gueye) is taken in as a favor by Madame Rosa (Loren), a former prostitute who now spends her life looking after the children of other prostitutes. Although Madame Rosa agrees to having Momo live with her, there is tension stemming from the fact that the young boy previously mugged her. As time goes by, the two learn to understand each other as they each battle their individual pasts.
The Life Ahead is a mostly quiet, character-driven film, touching on subjects such as tolerance and unconventional families in effectively subtle ways. It’s also a film in which its technical aspects go far in making it the emotionally rewarding journey that it is. Director Eduardo Ponti knows exactly the amount of beauty and heart on hand with a story such as The Life Ahead and his choices reflect that. The movie’s cinematography is stunning, finding beauty in the sometimes somber nature of the characters’ worlds. Just as beautiful are the various shots of the village in seaside Italy that make for one gorgeous visual setup after another, and which Ponti takes full advantage of. The director matches this with a sense of pacing which keeps the whole effort from feeling plodding as he allows the richness of every scene to flourish. The script, naturally, is key here and the filmmaker’s adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel is chock full of telling dialogue that contains both poetry and self-revealing wisdom alike. “I’m usually good at things I can’t stand,” Momo says after accepting a compliment about how good a job he’s doing helping to restore an old tapestry. It’s also a script full of philosophy which miraculously doesn’t venture into schmaltz, but instead opts for a truthful poignancy. “It’s precisely when you give up hope that good things happen,” Madame Rosa tells Momo in one of the film’s most pivotal moments. The poignancy also extends to the movie’s symbolism, specifically the recurring presence of a lioness which only Momo can see and its representation of safety and serenity for him.
As I said before, The Life Ahead is a character-driven film with two incredibly distinct and layered individuals at the forefront. Madame Rosa and Momo have lived vastly different lives, but have a great deal in common. These are two characters who are rightfully angry at the world; rightfully angry at what life has given them. The former’s time as a holocaust survivor and the latter never having overcome the loss of his mother have shaped who they are and how they inherently exist in the world. Yet each one can’t help but let their natural humanity come through. We see this as the unlikely pair learn to understand one another little by little. The Life Ahead never goes for the formulaic route of bratty kid/grouchy senior that other films featuring multi-generational central characters do. There are no happy, cuddly moments; no scenes of Momo and Madame Rosa laughing and playing while making pasta or a pie. Instead, the two watch and observe each other; they bear witness to who the other one is and in the process, a genuine respect is born and a connection that is seeped in authenticity. Adding some interesting color are all the side characters in Momo and Madame Rosa’s world. Each person we meet is either flawed or, for lack of a better term, a misfit with a rich and storied past. Beyond the film’s two main characters, The Life Ahead takes a fresh approach in reinforcing the theme that no one is who they appear to be when they step out into the world.
A film favoring character as much as The Life Ahead does is so dependent on the right performers to do it proper justice, which it fortunately has. With less than 20 films made since the early 1980s, Loren seems to mean it when she says she has no desire to work just to work, choosing instead to only agree to a project when it moves her. It’s clear The Life Ahead has done this. The actress remains as vibrant and present a screen performer as always, giving everything in each moment she’s on screen while sharing the light with her fellow actors. Although the star hasn’t always gotten the credit she’s deserved for playing against her glamorous image, she once again proves she can do just that with a look and performance so raw and real that most images of the legendary movie icon the has vanished. Gueye proves just as explosive as his famous co-star, but never once seems intimated by her as he turns in the kind of child performance immersed in knowledge and empathy that indicates a wise, old soul within the gifted young actor.
I feel one element/hurdle plaguing most movies today is the need to ensure, no, guarantee that its main characters come off as likable. This factor has become so detrimental to a movie’s success when it comes to both critics and audiences responding positively to it. There is that stupefyingly insulting and mind numbing belief that the only people worth watching on the screen are the ones a person can relate to so well, they feel they’d want to be friends with them. In reality, it’s the truth that matters; the truth of who the person on the screen is. The details of their pasts, their views of their futures and who they authentically are in the present carries far more resonance and so much value, it cannot help but serve the film best. The Life Ahead is the perfect example of what a film should aspire to when it comes to its characters. Neither protagonist is particularly likeable (at least not in the conventional sense), but Momo and Madame Rosa are both people who carry with them a number of true complexities and attractive, interesting qualities which cannot help but make both of them deeply human and real. For all of its attributes, it’s this aspect alone which makes The Life Ahead a beautiful and ethereal journey.