What a sabbatical!
It’s been 10 long years since Sophia Loren last starred in a feature film, an autobiographical TV movie called “My House is Full of Mirrors.” Back then, Instagram had not yet been invented and pricey hard seltzer was known as a vodka soda. Yes, the world has changed a lot over the past decade, but 86-year-old Loren is still as reassuringly robust and vital as she always was. The actress is absolute bliss in her new Italian drama, “The Life Ahead.”
The feel-good vibes come out of left field because, taken on its surface, you expect this Netflix movie to be as joyous as tax day. The plot: Loren plays a Holocaust survivor named Madame Rosa who looks after the children of local prostitutes. It sounds like “The Babysitters Club” is suffering from depression.
Not at all. “The Life Ahead” shimmers with the light and color of coastal Italy, and rather than chronicle one strong woman’s tussle with despair, it hinges on several intertwining, sublime relationships that lift up troubled souls.
Most involve a 12-year-old Senegalese Muslim boy named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), who moved to Italy when he was very little and now survives on petty crime. He winds up living with Rosa after stealing her shopping bag and getting turned in. Call it a meet-loot. Arriving at her apartment-turned-day-care-center, Momo isn’t keen on reforming his rascal ways or living with other kids. But he slowly becomes enthralled by Rosa — he thinks the number on her forearm means she’s a secret agent — and even starts to like the old broad.
Loren, who has played a sexy con artist and a scantily clad Cleopatra, has grown into a maternal presence on-screen — even if she’s always red-carpet ready. For many actresses, a dulling of the edges through the years can lead to a slump. Think Jane Fonda going from Vietnam War activist to the star of 2018’s godawful “Book Club.” For the Italian Oscar-winner, however, age has had the opposite effect.
With Loren’s hot-blooded reputation, you never know if you’re getting a scream or a hug, a tear or a scowl, love or loathing. Her behavior is totally unpredictable. As Rosa deals with the residual pain of the Holocaust and discreet health issues all at once, the hardass character keeps her deepest emotions a mystery.
Following suit, all of the actors are admirably restrained when it comes to feelings, especially the precocious Gueye. If this movie had been made 20 years ago, it would’ve been much more bombastic. Performers would’ve had to hold back the urge to take a bow after every monologue, while a symphony orchestra swelled like a sprained ankle. Damming the waterworks, however, grounds director Edoardo Ponti’s film in urban reality, and is much more moving than some hammy tour de force.
Is “The Life Ahead” the start of a new Lorennaissance? It’s hard to say. Ponti is Loren’s 47-year-old son, after all, so this is not only a perfect pairing of actress and part, but some good old-fashioned family bonding.
But if what it takes to keep this screen legend making movies is a few mother-son outings, send me the bill.
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