Sophia Loren, grand dame of the Italian and international cinema, has a fine star vehicle built around her in “The Life Ahead,” a sentimental drama tailor-made for her by her son, director and co-writer Edoardo Ponti.
The earthiness that was always a part of her appeal, the flashes of fire, spark this battle of co-dependent battle of wills between a very old woman close to losing her grasp on reality and the angry, wayward orphan who could slip into a life of crime if her influence on him doesn’t “take.:
In “Life” (premiering 11-13 on Netflix), the 80something Loren plays an age-appropriate Holocaust survivor who has taken in foundlings her whole life, talked into one last orphan to raise — for a price, of course.
Momo (dazzling newcomer Ibrahima Gueye) narrates our story, and he meets Madame Rosa (Loren) in the market. He snatches her purse.
All “Mohamed” wants is the chance to impress the low-rent Neopolitan mobster (Massimiliano Rossi) who might throw a little work his way. Momo can’t be more than eleven or so, but as a Senegalese orphan in a strange land, he figures the streets are his future. So he’d better polish his hustle.
Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) has taken on the role of guardian, via the state. But the kid is up to no good. The good doctor, recognizing the antiques that the kid stole, gambles on an intervention. If only his old friend Rosa, already keeping a Romanian Jewish immigrant boy and baby-sitting a transgender sex worker’s (Abil Zamora) toddler, would take Momo in.
AFTER he apologizes and returns the stolen candlesticks, of course.
“SCUuuuuuza,” Momo purrs, insincerely. “Apology NOT accepted,” she barks (in Italian with English subtitles).
But if the doctor pays her enough, she’ll change her mind about “the brat.” Momo has to get along with the other kids, stay out of trouble and never call her to her face what he does to the other kids — “Cagna,” “the Bitch.”
The kid narrates this story intermittently, and he picks up on what an odd duck Rosa is. She zones out from time to time. She has a locked room she likes to sit in in the rough-hewn basement of their old apartment building. “Down there, I feel safe.”
And she has numbers tattooed on her arm, which the kid wonders about.
The script, based on an old Romain Gary novel, sets up a tug of war over Momo’s future, and his mortal soul. There are worse drug dealers to be stuck with than Ruspo (Rossi), who puts him on the street, selling. The idea of a “fatherly” street criminal seems almost Dickensian.
Dr. Coen’s not in the picture as much, so Rosa walks Momo down to an old friend’s shop. Hamil (Babak Karimi) is just the fellow to instruct a young Muslim on the difference between right and wrong, and how to grow up to be a proper Muslim man. And nobody turns Rosa down.
“Your eyes and voice sing the song of deceit,” he complains, before agreeing to take the kid, who “didn’t even know I was Muslim.”
Testy Rosa, who frets over the kid’s behavior when she isn’t getting lost, sitting dazed in the rain or flashing back to (we assume) the traumas of her childhood, is the other “role model” in the kid’s life. But she’s the one who needs him as much as he needs her.
Young Gueye sneers and sulks through much of his performance as Momo. He fights every good thing that might worm its way into his life. But the simple purchase of a bike, or losing himself in his jams on his headphones, makes him exultant.
There’s a fantasy element to the film, an African child dreaming of the lion on a rug that Hamil has made. Add that to the desperate cross-Mediterranean migration into Europe (glimpsed), the Muslim kid taken in by Jews, the transgender Lola and the boy’s introduction to the drug trade and “The Life Ahead” can seem as if it’s checking off boxes meant to clutter up a fairly simple story.
But Gueye is a magnetic presence at the heart of it, and Loren lends it all the grace notes it leads, confronting the boy, sadly relating the story of her personal experience of the Holocaust and giving the kid the perspective to make better choices.
“It’s when you give up hope that good things happen,” she promises. Not that he buys that.
Pairing Loren up with a child with this much spark, acting-up and acting-out, proves to be a winning formula for the film. And whatever Momo has to look forward to in his “Life Ahead,” young Mr. Gueye will someday be able to tell his children that he got to work with a genuine screen legend in his very first feature film. And that he held his own.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, drug material involving minors, some sexual material and language
Cast: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Babak Karimi, Massimiliano Rossi
Credits: Directed by Edoardo Ponti, script by Ugo Chiti, Edoardo Ponti and Fabio Natale, based on the Romain Gary novel. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33