“The Life Ahead,” Sophia Loren’s long-awaited return to feature film, has one, central, ugly, thudding metaphor at its center.
About a third of the way through the treacly Netflix drama about a Muslim orphan and his aged Jewish caretaker, protagonist Momo (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye) peers around his bed to see a CGI lioness striding towards him. He smiles and soon it’s hovering over him, lapping at his face and shoulders as he giggles.
Momo is a 12-year-old street kid who lost his mother. The room with the lion is located in the home of Madame Rosa (Loren), a Holocaust survivor and retired sex worker running a daycare business for those in the oldest profession. It’s stupidly obvious what the imagined lioness means. But, in case you didn’t get it, it’s explained in the next scene. “It’s just his need for protection, affection, love,” Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), Rosa’s physician and Momo’s former guardian, says.
To be fair to the film, directed and co-written by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, the lioness is not entirely its own invention. Romain Gary surrounded Momo in his novel, “The Life Before Us,” on which the film is based, with a menagerie of imaginary friends to survive his lonely coexistence with an old, dying woman. The prior film adaptation, Moshé Mizrahi’s 1977 Oscar winner “Madame Rosa” was more discerning with its pick of companions, however, opting for the far more vivid “Arthur,” an umbrella wrapped in a green rag. The difference, while small, speaks volumes.
Ponti’s approach, like the novel’s, is to assume Momo’s perspective, while making the setting contemporary, relocating it from Paris to Bari, Italy and changing Momo’s nationality from Algerian to Senegalese. Pivotally, Ponti has also decided to make Momo a drug dealer and to render his connection to Madame Rosa more superficial than either Gary or Mizrahi. Instead of having grown up with Rosa as a mother figure — and, in a fashion, co-parent and, finally, patient — here Momo enters her life only after stealing her candlesticks as a preteen. (The “Les Miz” connections, not new to this iteration, are made all the more overt.)
This is not a subtle or original film, but it doesn’t just feel derivative because it has a nuanced and celebrated predecessor. It often seems as if the movie absorbed Syd Field’s screenwriting formula to distinguish itself, forcing an abbreviated character arc and a dramatic inciting incident onto resistant source material that reveled in dark humor and absurdity. It Hollywoodizes a foreign film, gifting Loren with an Oscar reel scene as Rosa finally reveals her Holocaust experience to Momo (“In Auschwitz I would hide in the barracks… I was your age”). While Momo doesn’t understand what this story really means, it nonetheless seals his commitment to Rosa, even though they’ve only lived together for two months.
Such deep relationships might well form over that time, but not — outside a movie — with the scenes we’re presented. The tell is in the logline, which states that Rosa and Momo form that most banal of cinematic arrangements: an “unlikely friendship.”
Cliché rules the day here, and no amount of dancing, accidental vibrator activation or sentimental monologues about the Shoah can save it. The initial premise has maudlin potential, and Ponti steers straight into it. Of the mother-son dynamic, the most touching feature is that Ponti would facilitate this project for Loren, in what seems like a transparent late-career bid for another Oscar win, 60 years after her first for Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women.”
Calculated or not, Loren, now 86, gives a sturdy performance and Gueye cries on cue. Ponti’s direction is capable, if condescending, fleshing out the character of Lola (Abril Zamora), a trans woman and former boxer. In a sidelong way, the film broaches the refugee crisis and finds new relevance in the old material, but that alone isn’t enough to justify a remake that dumbs down the original.
The wan exercise, free of humor or verve, will almost certainly net the desired nominations according to the trades. But only, I would hope, because of how unprecedented this year has been for world cinema.
The last time this story won an Oscar, the life in front of us was normal — and the honor was deserved. Sometimes, it’s worth looking back.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.