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Review: At 86, Sophia Loren remains a wonder of world cinema in ‘The Life Ahead’

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren in the movie "The Life Ahead."
(Regine de Lazzaris / Netflix
)

In a year marked by so much disruption to our consumption of cinema, a new film starring Sophia Loren — the Italian-language Netflix drama “The Life Ahead” — counts as something of a movie lover’s miracle, as if millions of sheltering, classics-revisiting cinéastes somehow willed a cherished legend back into our gaze-thirsty sights.

Though the Academy Award-winning star, now 86, never exactly retired, it’s been more than 10 years since she graced a feature (2009’s otherwise forgettable “Nine”), and thanks to her son Edoardo Ponti’s pleasantly touching adaptation/updating of French author Romain Gary’s 1975 novel (previously made into a 1978 film with Simone Signoret), we have another commanding portrayal of earthy, high-wattage fortitude to add to Loren’s considerable canon of roles.

In sun-kissed Bari on the southern coast of Italy, Jewish Madame Rosa (Loren) is a tough, regal neighborhood fixture with a particular calling: caring for the children of local sex workers out of her cramped apartment. A onetime streetwalker herself, she sees to their education (teaching Hebrew to the Jewish boy under her roof), health (involving the help of a nearby doctor, played by Renato Carpenteri) and sense of belonging. But when the fallout from a bag-snatching incident puts orphaned, itinerant 12-year-old Senegalese Muslim boy Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) into her orbit, the new kid’s hostility — born of family tragedy and a mistrust in anything that impedes his roaming independence — presents a challenge to this proud woman’s fraying tolerance for lost little souls.

Not that Momo isn’t capable of bending to his reluctant guardian’s will — but he’d rather engineer a juggling act of compliance and defiance that meets his own needs. He responds well enough to the nurturing guidance of a rug-making Muslim shopkeeper (Babak Karimi) whom Madame Rosa sets him up with. When alone, he fantasizes about a majestic lioness (rendered with CGI in a few scenes) who’s a protective playmate. But away from Rosa’s sights, Momo welcomes recruitment into the operation of a local drug lord (Massimiliano Rossi).

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What sparks a deeper bond between Rosa and Momo, however, is the brokenness each notices in the other, kindled by the boy’s worry whenever Rosa slips into a catatonic state or disappears into what Momo discovers is her basement hideaway. The number on her arm may not clue Momo to the origins of her pain, but he can recognize someone working out trauma when he sees one. And also when it threatens to overwhelm everything.

Though the movie’s point of view is squarely Momo’s — a tall task for an inexperienced actor, but which Gueye, himself an immigrant child, handles with plenty of gritty exuberance — it’s impossible not to be intoxicated by the Italian supernova sharing the frame. With every line and look, Loren both reminds us of her legacy playing tenacious women and paints Rosa’s distinctive fire and grief like an artisan. It’s a compact master class in the movie star’s craft: exquisitely tailored glamour and deft characterization working seamlessly in tandem. You’d think she’d been steadily flexing these muscles much more often these past couple of decades, so readily does Loren slip into the luxuriousness of her stature, all the while making one greedy for more turns before the camera before she eventually does decide enough is enough.

Because of that, combined with Angus Hudson’s appealingly textured cinematography and Ponti’s unfussy direction, the prevailing vibe from “The Life Ahead” is of a loving son’s gently turned gift to his beloved star mamma, instead of a wholly gripping or emotionally resonant tale of an unusual friendship. The narrative beats are soft, the sentiment behind them is even softer, and your concern for the plight of Italy’s many rootless refugees won’t necessarily be made any more acute as Momo’s and Rosa’s special connection plays out. But the chance to bask in Sophia Loren’s formidable glow is a pleasure not many movies can claim to offer, so with that in mind, plan your own “Life Ahead” of movie-watching accordingly.

'The Life Ahead'

In Italian with English subtitles

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, drug content involving minors, some sexual material and language

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Available Nov. 13 on Netflix

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