The Life Ahead (4 stars)

The Life Ahead

The great Sophia Loren bags a fine role in her eighties under the stewardship of her director son

One of cinema's greats returns to the spotlight in a touching drama whose story of two hard-bitten characters forging an unshakeable bond is the kind of comforting entertainment we need right now. Octogenarian Sophia Loren stars and is directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. The two have worked together before – on short Human Voice and 2002's Between Strangers – with Ponti's compassionate take on the material providing the ideal platform for his mother's mesmeric talent.

Unfolding in coastal Italy, it's the story of 12-year-old Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a Senegalese Muslim boy, orphaned and in the vague care of guardian Dr Coen (Renato Carpentieri), who is struggling to keep this smart but headstrong scamp in line. Loren plays formidable ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, who runs a refuge of sorts for the children of fellow streetwalkers, including the toddler son of vivacious trans hooker Lola (Abril Zamora). Struggling to pay the rent, Rosa agrees to take Momo in for a fee and although the cynical pair take a while to hit it off, Rosa slowly starts to reach him and when her health begins to badly fail Momo steps up.

It's based on the French novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary, which was adapted for cinema in 1977 as the Oscar-winning Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret. What has the potential for quite a dour or sentimental story, given the traumatic background of its protagonists, brings an attractive vibrancy and dash of eccentricity to its portrayal of chaotic lives.

There's a lot of charm in the scruffy makeshift family that Momo finds in Rosa and her charges, as this wary pocket-sized grifter eventually warms up, and there's a nice subplot involving his work with Muslim shopkeeper Mr Hamil (Babak Karimi), who teaches him about a faith he has never really known. Momo has also been taken under the wing of a local crook (Massimiliano Rossi) and proves an ingenious and industrious drug peddler, with the film unafraid to show the lure of the trade.

But it's the charismatic work of Gueye and Loren that lifts this above run-of-the-mill odd couple bonding. Gueye is a real find – credibly shrewd and resourceful, he takes us believably through this young boy's difficult emotional journey. It's a lovely role for the still magnificent Loren, who plays someone who transcends their impoverished circumstances with the respect she commands. A crafty and tough old bird with dishevelled but stubbornly discernible glamour, she's nevertheless increasingly vulnerable to the ghosts of her past.

There are formulaic elements, and though The Life Ahead largely avoids mawkishness the film's final moments certainly go down that road, yet it's refreshingly non-judgemental and there's enough authenticity to mean its tears feel honestly earned. And with two such endearing turns at its centre it can't fail to touch the heart.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 13 Nov.

The Life Ahead

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US / Italy
  • 1h 34min
  • Directed by: Edoardo Ponti
  • Cast: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye