A Life Ahead – review (Netflix)

Brief synopsis: a headstrong, Senegalese orphan boy goes to live with an old woman who takes in and fosters children. With her, he finds a makeshift family and path to a better life. 

Is it any good?: The Life Ahead – La Vita Davanti A Sé (original Italian title) – is an emotional film and is not for everyone. It is about the relationships and the decisions that shape young Momo’s life – brilliantly played by newcomer, Ibrahima Gueye. This is an actors film with everyone in the film turning in great performances. 

Most recognisable in the film is the bombshell of the sixties and seventies, Sophia Loren, who captivates with this performance of an aged Holocaust survivor succumbing to dementia as she looks after children. A touching film. 

Spoiler territory: Lola (Abril Zamora), an ex-prostitute, fighter and transgender, returns from visiting her father with her young son, Babu, to the tenement building she lives in. She sees Momo (Gueye) in the stairwell. He freezes on seeing her. She calls to him. Momo runs off, disappearing down the stairs. Lola runs after him. He disappears into a room in the basement, shutting the door behind him. Abc calls to him through the door. 

Six months earlier, Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) is out looking around the local market with a couple of children in tow. Orphan boy, Momo, is surveying the crowd. He sees Madame Rosa and sees a couple of candlestick sticking out of her bag. He sneaks up on her and snatches bag. He runs off.

He takes the candlesticks, hoping to sell them to a local dealer, Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi) but one of Ruspa’s boys, Nala, tells him that the candlesticks are crap and sends him on his way. He returns to Dr Coen’s (Renato Carpentieri), where he has been living ever since social services put him there. The doctor sees him hiding the candlesticks and asks him where he got them. 

Momo lies. The doctor does not believe and tells him he will turn him in to the police if he does not tell him where he got the candlesticks. He takes the candlesticks back to Madame Rosa and makes Momo apologises. 

Madame Rosa does not like his attitude and the two do not hit it off. She is grateful to the doctor and asks him if there is any way in which she can repay him. There is one. 

The doctor wants her to take Momo fora couple of months. She is opposed to the idea, she thinks Momo is too wild. Besides, she does not want to take in children anymore. She used to do it when she was a prostitute for fellow prostitutes, as it was better than letting their children fall into the hands of social services. She was already stuck with one child, Iosif, whose mother had already left him for months. 

The doctor offers to pay her. After a brief bit of bartering, she agrees to take him for two months. Momo does not want to live with her and tell Coen that he would rather go to social services. He runs off. Ruspa catches up with him and tells him he overheard him telling the doctor that he did not want to live with Madame Rosa. 

Ruspa tells him that living with Madame Rosa is better than being with social services, especially when it comes to working for him. He moves in with Madame Rosa.

He meets Iosif. The two get into a scuffle as Momo take his bed. Madame Rosa takes him to a small room of his own. Momo goes to see Ruspa. Ruspa gives him a selection of drugs to sell. 

He returns to the tenement where he is living with Madame Rosa and sees her muttering and going down the stairs into the basement. He follows her. She goes along a long corridor and disappears into a room. 

The next day, Lola comes to collect her son. She puts on some music and encourages Madame Rosa to dance with her. Later, Momo is helping Madame Rosa with the washing up and notices numbers tattooed on her from Auschwitz. 

When he goes to play with Iosif, he asks him about the numbers. Iosif tells him he thinks she is a secret agent and the numbers are a code to get into her base that is in the basement of the building. He says it is like her Batcave. 

Momo becomes one of Ruspa’s best dealers, shifting the gear he is given quickly. Madame Rosa takes Momo to see her friend, Hamil (Babak Karimi). She wants him to let Momo work with him a couple of days a week. 

Hamil, a kindly man, agrees. Momo takes his earnings from his drug sales to Ruspa. Ruspa is impressed and immediately promotes him, giving him Nala’s area. Momo is happy and dances along the street, headphones on. He does not see Nala. Nala comes and punches him in the gut. 

It is raining. Momo returns to the tenement and Iosif calls to him. Something is wrong with Madame Rosa. The two boys go up to the roof, where those that live in the building hang their washing out, and see Madame Rosa sitting in the rain, staring into space. Momo waves a hand in front of her face. No reaction.

He sticks his tongue out. Nothing. He starts dancing in front of her and encourages Iosif to join him. Madame Rosa snaps back to reality, asking the boys why they are out in the rain. 

Momo goes to work for Hamil. Tamil shows him a rug and tells him about what it means to be Muslim. Momo tells him he never knew he was a Muslim until he went to school. Hamil asks why he no longer goes to school. He tells him that he stabbed a boy in there neck with a pencil for making fun of him, so they kicked him out. 

Momo dreams of a lioness, dreams he is playing with the cat and wakes up to see Iosif laughing at him. Madame Rosa takes him to Dr Coen. Madame Rosa thinks he is not right in the head and that the doctor is indulging him too much. She thinks he is dangerous. 

The doctor persuades her to keep looking after him. They leave the doctor and Momo sees immigrants being arrested by police. Madame Rosa pulls him away. 

Back home, she sends him up to the apartment, telling him that she will follow shortly. She goes down into the basement. Momo follows her and sees her sitting alone in a room. She sees him and sends him away. Later she tells him that being in the room makes her feel safe. She tells him he can stay with her as long as he wants. 

At night, Iosif wakes up Momo with his moaning; a nightmare. Momo wakes him up. Iosif tells him he misses his mother. Momo does believe that she is coming back. Iosif is convinced she will. Momo tells him that his mother died when he was six. 

Momo goes to see Ruspa. Ruspa pays him for his work. Momo buys a bike. Madame Rosa, Lola and all the kids go to lunch al fresco. Madame Rosa leaves the table telling them she is going to the bathroom. Iosif and Babu are playing. Lola receives a text from her father. 

It is her birthday and he would like to see her. Lola believes he just wants to see his grandson, not his sex-changed now, daughter. She says she is not going. 

Lola wonders where Madame Rosa has disappeared to and goes looking for her. She enlists the help of Momo to look for her in the vineyards around the lunch area. 

Momo finds her sitting on a wall, looking into space. Lola finds them and asks Madame Rosa why she wandered off. Momo covers for her, saying she just wanted some air. 

Momo, worried about Madame Rosa, tells Hamil that he should get together with her. He tells him that, as a Muslim, he could not be with a Jew. Momo tells him that she is not Jewish, she is old. Hamil explains that old people are too selfish to live together.

Later, Momo helps Iosif with his Hebrew. Madame Rosa has another peculiar episode, locking herself away in her bedroom. 

The boys get Lola. She breaks into the bedroom and finds Madame Rosa babbling as she is packing. She tells the boys to get Dr Coen. The doctor says she needs a CAT scan. 

Momo goes to see her. She has left her room. He finds her in the basement. She tells him about hiding in Auschwitz but Momo does not know what she is talking about. 

She shows him a photo with mimosa trees in it, telling him how much she loves them. She also tells him she does not want to go to a hospital, believing they will want to experiment on her.

Momo’s business kept flourishing, his client base increasing. Madame Rosa’s worsened. Iosif’s mother comes to get him. Momo is angry and tells Iosif that he is glad he is going. Iosif tells him he will miss him. Madame Rosa comes and consoles Momo after Iosif and his mother have left. 

An angry Momo goes to work at Hamil’s place. Hamil tells him that he knows what he does to make money. Momo asks if he is going to turn him in. Hamil tells him no but he needs to think about his decisions. Momo storms out. 

Lola decides to go and visits her father. The phone Ruspa gave Momo rings while he is at the dinner table. Madame Rosa tells him to give her the phone. Momo tells her that the phone is his and he uses it for his dealing. He leaves the table and goes out. He parties with Ruspa. 

He returns the next morning to see Madame Rosa being put into an ambulance. Later he overhears Coen telling Lola that he had to admit her to hospital. He goes to see her in hospital. 

She does not recognise him. He tells her that he is going to come back for her. He goes and sees Ruspa. He gives him his drugs back and quits working for him. He goes and apologises to Hamil. 

Lola goes to see her father. She tells Momo to go and stay with Dr Coen. Momo goes and gets Madame Rosa out of the hospital and brings her back to the tenement. He takes her to her basement room, where her memories live. The police come to the tenement, looking for Madame Rosa. They go to her old apartment and do not find her. 

Madame Rosa is bedridden and Momo looks after her. He gives her a mimosa branch. Lola returns from her visit to her father. She sees Momo on the stairs. He runs and she goes after him. He runs to the room where Madame Rosa is. She has died. 

Madame Rosa is buried. Momo stands away from the crowd at the cemetery. After they have left, he places the photo she showed him onto her grave. He catches up with Lola and the doctor and they leave the cemetery. The end. 

Final thoughts: The Life Ahead is a good film that is more emotive storytelling than is the norm. Gueye’s Momo is the central character, the person who we follow but Loren’s Madame Rosa is just as important. Between the two of them, they are the heart of the film. At opposite ends of their lives and both having lived through personal traumas, the two are odd kindred spirits. 

Based on a book, The Life Before Us, by Romain Gary, the film is a remake of the 1977 film, Madame Rosa. This version is directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti. He also collaborated on the screenplay with Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale. The film is beautifully shot and edited and Ponti’s direction is good. 

The Life Ahead is a film one has to concentrate on whilst watching as there is not a great deal of exposition, the story being told as you watch it without much background information.

At ninety minutes long, the film bumps along quite nicely, with no screen time wasted or feeling unnecessary. 

Ultimately, it is an actors film and Ponti gets great performances out of every actor on show. As I said at the outset, The Life Ahead is not a film that will appeal to everybody but it is definitely worth a look if you want to see watch something a little different from the usual.

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