What’s Up at the Movies: We Review “The Life Ahead”

You might have seen a familiar name in the entertainment headlines this week: Sophia Loren, the 86-year-old Italian icon, has returned to movie acting after a ten-year absence. She’s said in interviews that she’d only been waiting for material she connected with, but it’s no coincidence that the director of her new film, Netflix’s Italian-language The Life Ahead, is her son, Edoardo Ponti. If you decide to watch it, Loren will undoubtedly be the reason, and viewers that only come with the expectation to see her will not be disappointed. Along with the newly discovered young star, she delivers a quality performance in what is otherwise a solid if familiar drama, proving that sometimes all that’s necessary for a successful movie is to let talented actors do their thing.

Based on the French novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary, The Life Ahead (or La vita davanti a sé in the original Italian) is the story of Momo (Ibrahim Gueye), an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant who has grown up rough on the streets of Naples. To prevent him from becoming the responsibility of child services, Momo is reluctantly taken in by Madame Rosa (Loren), a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who now runs a daycare for the children of women who still walk the streets. As you might expect, the two begin to warm to each other after a rough start, and Momo begins to reconsider his path in life as Madame Rosa faces the faded end to hers.

That audiences are surely familiar with the emotional beats of such material is more of a risk than an asset for Ponti, and he decides to follow them without leaning into them too heavily. His camera is a curious observer rather than an active shaper of our experience, allowing whatever emotional reactions we have to emerge from the scenes naturally instead of trying to force certain feelings on us. That distance avoids the danger of grating, unearned sentimentality, but Ponti seems to aspire to a Pedro Almodóvar-level of empathy that is unfathomable without a more playful approach to form. As it is, Ponti’s direction keeps The Life Ahead from sinking but injects little novelty to freshen its formula.

The benefit of Ponti’s approach is that it allows us to hone in on the performances, and both newcomer Gueye and veteran Loren are compelling to watch. Gueye is a natural presence on screen, so easily manifesting Momo’s inner turmoil that we forget how strained child performances can often be. Loren instead must pull inwards, fighting to keep Madame Rosa’s fear at her declining mental state hidden behind her forceful, self-possessed personality. Ponti mostly leaves it up to his actors to capture and project their characters’ nuances, and it’s a testament to their performances that the tender moments between Momo and Madame Rosa feel genuinely so. If you’re unlikely to be blown away by The Life Ahead, you’ll at least be interested as you watch it unfold, and you could do far worse than that on a weekend movie night.

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