Sophia Loren is one of those movie greats who doesn’t often find her way into a great movie. News of “The Life Ahead,” her first feature film since 2009’s misbegotten “Nine,” was certainly welcome. But a perusal of its précis and circumstances was apt to provoke a “hope for the best, expect the worst” feeling.
The picture is based on the same Romain Gary novel as 1978’s “Madame Rosa” (although its creators insist that it’s not a remake). Simone Signoret nailed the title role of that picture, and when Signoret nailed the role, it stayed nailed. Additionally, “The Life Ahead” is directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, whose father was the producer Carlo Ponti.
But what do you know? “The Life Ahead” is better than pretty good.
Ponti’s not a filmmaker of genius, but he’s a real filmmaker. He updates Gary’s story, whose heroine is a Holocaust survivor turned streetwalker turned children’s caretaker, intelligently and resourcefully. And he gives his mother a role that’s distinctive from the one Signoret played.
This conception of Rosa capitalizes on the generosity of spirit that has always been a part of Loren’s screen persona, adding grace notes of long-lived sorrows. Loren, 86, goes at the role with both a seasoned performer’s intelligence and a megastar’s innate charisma.
Ponti doesn’t ask his mother to carry the whole movie. “The Life Ahead” frequently centers on Momo, a teenage Senegalese refugee who first meets Loren’s Rosa when he wrests a couple of antique candlesticks from her arms and tries to run off with them. A local doctor bribes Rosa into adding the child to her little brood, mostly the children of sex workers trying to break bad habits.
Spectacularly played by Ibrahima Gueye, 14, the kid’s a gusher of sullen anger. He doesn’t get Rosa — he has never even heard of the Holocaust. But he understands what it is to be hated, unwanted. Without even talking things out, he and Rosa discover they’re kindred spirits. They are united in opposition to the status quo, let’s say. And when Rosa sees the end of her own life approaching, she asks Momo for a grave, terrible favor, and he promises to deliver it when the time comes.
This picture earns its tear-jerking without becoming treacly. OK, without becoming too treacly. And it has other charming, enlightened components. For instance, it does the heart a lot of good to see The Sophia Loren dance uninhibitedly with the transgender actress Abril Zamora, who plays the mother of one of Rosa’s other charges.
The Life Ahead
Rated PG-13 for language and themes. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Watch on Netflix.