The term tearjerker has a negative connotation it doesn’t deserve. Movies exist for all types of reasons, and catharsis—especially in difficult, complicated times—should never be underestimated. Add to that the pleasure of watching a much-loved actor in her first feature role in more than 10 years. There are some propositions you just shouldn’t say no to.
In The Life Ahead, directed by Edoardo Ponti, Sophia Loren plays Rosa, a feisty Holocaust survivor living in coastal Italy who becomes the reluctant caretaker of Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), an angry Senegalese orphan who’s headed down the wrong path. Momo is brought into Rosa’s care right after he’s robbed her of a few silver candlesticks she’d been meaning to sell as a way of paying her next month’s rent—talk about starting off on the wrong foot. What’s more, Momo starts selling drugs just as Rosa brings him into her household, and he’s alarmingly good at it. Kindness can’t reach him; his face is blank and shut down, a fortress of stubbornness. Rosa, a former prostitute who steps up to care for the children of other streetwalkers when necessary, already has her hands full and begins to lose patience with him. He’s a kid on the edge, but he’s pushing her toward the brink.
The surprises of The Life Ahead are the gentle kind: There are no wild revelations or transformations, no hyper-dramatic turnabouts. But the movie has a quietly enjoyable power. (The story is adapted from the Romain Gary novel that also inspired the 1977 film Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret.) Rosa persuades a friend who runs an antiques shop, Hamil (played, wonderfully, by Iranian actor Babak Karimi), to bring Momo on to help out, hoping he’ll help put the kid on the straight and narrow. Momo is withdrawn and surly with other people, but when he’s alone, he spends hours sketching lioness faces with a pen. His attachment to this goddess-lioness is so deep that he hallucinates her into being, and it becomes clear she’s the incarnation of his lost mother. Hamil—who, like Momo, is a Muslim—knows nothing of this. But he puts the boy to work repairing an antique rug depicting a lion, explaining that the creature is a symbol of power, patience and faith. Momo takes to the work even as he grumbles about it (“I’m always good at doing the things I don’t like,” he grouses), and we see his wall of resistance crumbling. The movie doesn’t overwork its symbolic motifs—if anything, the lioness is welcome whenever she appears, in any form.
There’s another lioness in The Life Ahead, and I probably don’t need to tell you who she is. This is Loren’s first feature role since the 2009 song-and-dance fiasco Nine, and it’s a joy to watch her. Ponti, who is Loren’s son, doesn’t have to romanticize her famous beauty. It’s the sort that doesn’t fade with age; rather, it intensifies into something beyond a mere surface quality, becoming more of a song of the self. As Rosa, she still wears the trademark Loren eyeliner, a cat’s eye that swoops flirtatiously toward the heavens. Her body language speaks of motherly impatience, of not having any time to waste. When Rosa’s doctor (played by Renato Carpentieri), who has been caring for Momo, tries to persuade her to take this frustratingly unadoptable boy for just a few months, she strides away from him in her rolling gait, her exasperation hanging in the air like heavy perfume: “Are you nuts? Over my dead body!” Rosa doesn’t soften toward the boy easily. But when she does, it’s as believable and as sure as the moon in the sky, and all is right with the world. There’s nothing cheap about the ending of The Life Ahead; it’s pure in its sentiment, direct but eloquent. And if it draws a few tears, just go with the flow. You may very well need it.