Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren will play a Holocaust survivor in her first film in a decade.
The film, titled “La Vita Davanti a Sé” (“The Life Ahead”), is directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, and is based on French novelist, aviator and diplomat Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us,” which he published under the pen name Emile Ajar.
Variety reports that Loren, 84, will portray Madame Rosa, a survivor who forms a de facto family with a 12-year-old Senegalese immigrant, a 10-year-old Romanian street kid and a 35-year-old trans woman.
It’s a new take on an old property. While Gary’s novel has been adapted to film before in 1977, with Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi’s Oscar-winning “Madame Rosa,” Ponti told Variety his treatment will be different, focusing, like the novel, on the perspective of the 12-year-old immigrant child Momo.
Momo and Rosa come from different backgrounds “culturally, generationally, racially, religiously,” Ponti told Variety. “And yet they are cut from the same cloth of pain and having been brought up in the streets.”
“The Life Ahead,” which is expected to complete production in March of 2020, will also be brought up to the present and relocated from Paris to the Italian city of Bari.
In the book and first film, Madame Rosa is a former prostitute and Momo is not Senegalese, but an Arab Muslim. There is a Senegalese character in the earlier works named Madame Lola, whose equivalent appears to be Spanish actress Abril Zamora’s character of a transgender woman.
Ponti acknowledged that the film has a clear political dimension, dealing as it does with people on the margins - refugees, the elderly and members of the LGBT community - but stressed that, “It’s best for us to focus on the characters, to focus on the emotions… and then it’s up to the audience to talk about the politics behind them.”
Whether Rosa’s past at Auschwitz and the secret cellar containing artifacts connected to her Jewish identity will feature in the film remains to be seen, but given that the story has been lifted to Loren’s native Italy, her backstory may be adjusted accordingly.
Loren is Roman Catholic, but has played Jews - and even a survivor - before.
In 1966’s “Judith,” Loren portrayed the Jewish ex-wife of a German tank commander. Her character survived Dachau and is brought to mandatory Palestine to live on a kibbutz and aid the Hagganah in capturing her ex, who is teaching the Arab forces battle tactics. Loren went to Israel and visited several kibbutzim to prepare for the part. In 2016, she returned to the Jewish state to present her one-woman show.
Two decades after “Judith,” in 1997’s “Soleil,” Loren played Maman Lévy, the wife of a Jewish post office employee who leaves her to travel to Nazi-occupied Paris with forged papers. Maman is left in Algiers to raise their five children - including troubled son Meyer - alone.
According to Ponti, Loren is still in fighting shape, capably working 10-hour days.
“At 84 she wants to put it all on the line to make a movie that is so deep, so challenging, both emotionally and physically,” Ponti told Variety. “The energy and passion with which she approaches every scene is a marvel to watch.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.