Netflix is aiming for all the Oscars next year (assuming the Academy Awards even happen). Most of their heavy-hitting titles are getting one- or two-week runs in theaters before landing on the streaming service, and there are several films to keep an eye out for being released through December. One that might slip under the radar is small-scale, heart-wrenching The Life Ahead, with a clear Best Actress candidate in 86-year-old Oscar-winner Sophia Loren playing Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor living in seaside Italy who occasionally takes in the children of some of her prostitute friends.
The protagonist of the film is a 12-year-old Senegalese Muslim boy named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), who snatches Rosa’s oversized purse at the beginning of the film and attempts to sell some antiques inside. He’s caught by a doctor friend (who also happens to be Rosa’s doctor), and since the kid has no parents, the doctor asks Rosa to take him into her home. Rosa is already keeping two other children, including the toddler son of a transgender neighbor, Lola (Abril Zamora), who leaves her kid with Rosa when she’s working the streets.
Not surprisingly, Momo and Rosa grow close. He begins to see this apartment as his new home, but he still needs money. So, he goes to work for a local drug dealer, making a significant amount of money by drumming up new, younger clients. Based on the book by Romain Gary and directed by Edoardo Ponti (Coming & Going), The Life Ahead stays fairly lighthearted, observing the mostly humorous culture and age clashes between its leads. Soon it becomes clear that Rosa is having memory issues and may possibly suffer from Alzheimer’s, taking frequent trips down into a private room she’s set up in her basement where she remembers her past, growing up in a concentration camp and somehow avoiding execution. At one quite confessional moment, she makes Momo promise to not let her spend her final days in a hospital; she sees them as places where people experiment on you and she wants no part of that.
There aren’t a great many surprises and unexpected turns in The Life Ahead, but there is something about watching the legendary Loren give one of her purest and most impressive performances, playing a woman who wavers between a tough disciplinarian and a fragile, vulnerable survivor who is trapped in her own mind, either with no memories or too many terrible ones crowding out the good. The way that Rosa and Momo look out for each other is particularly touching, and she provides him with a mentor and role model to getting his life back on track before he gets much older and it’s too late to change. There’s nothing overly sentimental about the film, and Ponti keeps things grounded for maximum emotional impact, especially in the film’s final moments. The Italian locations are beautiful, and Loren can still deliver.
The film opens theatrically on Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and will be available to stream on Netflix November 13. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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