Review: Sophia Loren’s Cinematic Return ‘The Life Ahead’ (‘La vita davanti a sé’) ★★★★★

Sophia Loren, an actress fully deserving of the label legendary, has kept a low profile in recent years, appearing to be massively selective with her screen roles. The Italian cinematic titan’s most recent feature film was 2009’s Nine, which was followed by a short film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Human Voice directed by her son  Edoardo Ponti. Loren returns to feature film, coaxed by her filmmaker son to star in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé).

An adaptation of Romain Gary’s Momo (or The Life Before Us), The Life Ahead sees Loren star as Madame Rosa an elderly Holocaust survivor who takes in Senegalese orphan Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) into her care. The young ne’er-do-well and his newfound companion gradually strike up a bond, that is threatened by Rosa’s worsening health conditions.

Ponti has crafted an elegant and heartfelt showcase for Loren, who alongside child actor Gueye carries the emotional weight of the narrative. That narrative is ultimately a predictable one that plays out exactly how we imagine it to, yet The Life Ahead is nonetheless fascinating and the heartfelt character journey at the centre of it is truly engaging. From the moment Momo steals Rosa’s candlesticks in a bustling Italian market, their fate is sealed and their instantaneous connection struck – both going through their own traumas – Rosa battling the corroding effects of dementia, Momo attempting to assert a place in the world, filled with anger and issues of abandonment. Yet the joy of The Life Ahead comes in witnessing the bond that joins the two unlikely souls together.

Ponti’s narrative – co-adapted by Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale – gradually unveils the depth of its character development in a drip-feed effect. Characters behave in unusual manners, later developed as the film progresses – Rosa retreats to her basement in the evenings, whilst Momo is plagued by dreams of a visiting lioness. Managing to further intrigue us as the narrative progresses, Momo and Rosa soon become supports for one another as they continue to tackle their respective battles.

Both formidable protagonists, the actors manage to convey a sense of vulnerability through their steely exteriors. Momo may expose himself to a world of drug-dealing for a local crime boss, but several well-crafted moments showcase the remains of his childhood innocence. Loren’s Rosa battles a past as a Holocaust survivor, whilst managing the traumas and lapses of troubling fits of dementia. Yet despite this, Loren manages to convey the role with a sharp, acidic wit (a scene where a doctor discusses the meaning of Momo’s dream lioness results in the amusing line “So you want me to crawl on the ground and lick his face?” from Rosa). She’s sharp, feisty, and wholly loveable – much to the credit of Loren’s vibrant and engaging performance.

The mutual bond forming throughout The Life Ahead allows us to forgive the predictable nature of the narrative, whilst moments of freshness and touches exploring wider issues ensure to keeps us engaged. The treatment of refugees, child drug dealers, prostitution, and trans acceptance, all get touched upon in this surprisingly progressive feature.

Ponti’s direction is gentle and heartfelt, sensitively handling the narrative topics with earnest sincerity. The idea that Rosa provides the stability and support Momo needs as she is slipping away, ensures that The Life Ahead is undoubtedly tearjerker material. Cinematography from Angus Hudson ensures that the feature’s visual style feels as elegant as the performances and direction, capturing the shabby beauty of Rosa’s home in urban Italy.

The Life Ahead is a stunning showcase for Sophia Loren, who delivers a late career-best performance. Matched by a turn of understated beauty from Ibrahima Gueye, Edoardo Ponti’s feature is a gorgeous character drama.

Watch the trailer below:

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