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'The Life Ahead' review: Sophia Loren shines in uneven, but engaging drama

Ibrahima Gueye as Momo and Sophia Loren as

Ibrahima Gueye as Momo and Sophia Loren as Madame Rosa in Netflix's "The Life Ahead." Credit: Netflix/Regine de Lazzaris aka Greta

MOVIE “The Life Ahead”

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the Italian port city of Bari, the elderly Madame Rosa reluctantly takes a Senegalese orphan, Momo, into her care. As the unlikely pair develop a relationship, Momo discovers there’s more to his guardian than first meets the eye.

MY SAY At the peak of her career in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Italian screen star Sophia Loren established herself as the definitive European bombshell: womanly curves, all-knowing eyes, lips so full they were almost indecent. In the ‘70s Loren put her two young sons ahead of her screen career and the public saw less of her. It’s one reason why, 60 years later, Loren seems frozen in our memories. She’s still the curvaceous maid who befuddled Cary Grant in "Houseboat," still the statuesque noblewoman who gave herself to Charlton Heston in "El Cid."

It can be a shock to see Loren in "The Life Ahead," her first film in more than a decade (following 2009’s "Nine"). Loren, now 86, plays Rosa, a cantankerous old lady who looks after the children of prostitutes. She’s nonjudgmental — one of her working moms is a transgender woman, Lola (Abril Zamora) — perhaps because Rosa was once a sex-worker herself. It’s the rebellious Momo (nicely played by 12-year-old Ibrahima Gueye, a first-time actor) who glimpses another shadow from her past: The blurred digits of an Auschwitz prisoner number on her forearm.

In her second feature under the direction of her son Edoardo Ponti (from her marriage to the film producer Carlo Ponti), Loren gives a beautifully lived-in performance. She’s guarded but not entirely coldhearted. She demands money for taking care of Momo and doesn’t exactly warm to the kid. "He’s rotten to the core," she tells a friend. Still, Momo senses her inner goodness, and so do we. In a way, Rosa recalls one of Loren’s finest and least glamorous performances, as Cesira, a mother caring for a preteen daughter in wartime Italy in 1960s "Two Women," directed by the famed neorealist Vittorio De Sica.

Written by Ponti and Ugo Chiti from a novel by Romain Gary, "The Life Ahead" can feel slightly unfocused. It nods to Judaism and Islam but never says much about them, nor does it have anything to add about the Holocaust. The recurring figure of an imaginary lioness (Momo’s spirit animal, or perhaps his surrogate mother, and rendered in CGI) feels incongruous in this otherwise realistic and clear-eyed film. The film’s main selling point is another chance to see Loren — which is true of any movie lucky enough to have her.

BOTTOM LINE An uneven but engaging drama, elevated by Loren’s confident performance.

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