In 1962, Sophia Loren won an Academy Award for her starring role in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (La ciociara), the first actor to triumph at the Oscars in a foreign language film. In 1965 she was nominated again, for De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (Matrimonio all’italiana), before receiving an honorary award in 1991 for “a career rich with memorable performances that has added permanent lustre to our art form”. Now, Loren is reportedly in the running once more, this time for a standout late-career turn in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé), adapted from the novel by Romain Gary, and directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. Recently tipped by Variety as a contender for the 2021 awards, the 86-year-old could become the Academy’s oldest best actress nominee while also breaking Henry Fonda’s record for the longest gap between acting nominations (41 years).
Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor living in a southern Italian port, who cares for the children of sex workers – a profession in which she was once employed. Magnetic screen newcomer Ibrahima Gueye is Momo, the orphaned Senegalese street kid who snatches Rosa’s bag, only to have genially protective Dr Coen (Renato Carpentieri) force him to return it, and to apologise. At first, sparks fly between these two chalk-and-cheese characters, each proudly defiant in their own way. But the doctor seems to spy a kinship between their predicaments, and entreats Rosa to take Momo in – albeit at a price. As Rosa’s health declines (she is increasingly given to bouts of trance-like disorientation), it falls to Momo to become her saviour – a neatly inevitable reversal of fortune.
Gary’s novel, written under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, was previously adapted for the screen by writer/director Moshé Mizrahi, with Simone Signoret memorably leading Madame Rosa to the Oscar for foreign language film in 1978. Working with co-writer Ugo Chiti, Ponti has made several significant changes beyond shifting the setting from Paris to modern-day Bari, creating a film that is tonally very different from Mizrahi’s acclaimed adaptation. While sociopolitical undercurrents remain, the focus here is on more formulaic emotional engagement, with alternately tear-jerking and uplifting episodes accompanied by large dollops of Gabriel Yared’s stickily declarative score.
The main selling point is Loren, who combines world-weary abrasiveness with a sense of something softer, turning Rosa into a believably divided character who puts a brave face on the future while seeking refuge from the past in the sanctuary of her lonely basement. Possessed of fiercely expressive features that can flit between anger and enchantment in an instant, she commands the screen, closely observed by Angus Hudson’s camera, which is drawn (like the audience’s gaze) to the glint in her eyes, the imperious tilt of her chin.
As for Gueye, he brings a vibrant authenticity and confidence to the narrator role of Momo, capturing both the bravado of a youth drawn to the temptations of drug-dealing street life and the innate vulnerability of a child displaced (geographically and culturally), attempting to choose between parental role models. Strong supporting turns from Iranian-Italian Babak Karimi as storekeeper Mr Hamil and Abril Zamora as close neighbour Lola add heft and texture, even as a wobbly CGI lion (no, really) and Laura Pausini’s rendition of Diane Warren’s toe-curling, Oscar-tipped theme song push things into the realm of cliche.