Eight months ago, Netflix scooped up “The Life Ahead,” Italian USC grad Edoardo Ponti’s third collaboration with his mother, two-time Oscar-winner Sophia Loren, returning to the screen at age 86 for the first time in almost a decade. It’s easy to see why the streamer wanted to buy the Italian movie. Like the 1977 foreign-language Oscar-winner “Madame Rosa” starring Simone Signoret, Ponti’s film is adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 French novel “The Life Before Us.” He moved the setting from France in the ‘70s to a contemporary Italian seaside town, but the story is much the same.
Madame Rosa is a tough Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute who cares for the children of streetwalkers. Her doctor asks her to look after a sullen 12-year orphan Muslim who reluctantly returns her filched purse. At first, the Sudanese boy seems intractable, getting into fights with her other kids and selling drugs for a local dealer to schoolchildren. But Madame Rosa makes a worthy adversary, as she and her warm neighborhood allies inevitably bring him around.
The handsome movie (completed during the pandemic) tells the heart-tugging story in a straightforward, naturalistic way. The immigrant drama about marginalized outsiders resonates; if Italy submits the film for Best International Feature Film, it would play well for Academy voters, and if not, Loren could still land her third Best Actress nomination.
Back in 1962, Loren became the first actor to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language film, for Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist wartime drama “Two Women.” She went on to a long career, working with the likes of Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin, and Sidney Lumet.
She was nominated again in 1965 for raucous comedy “Marriage Italian Style” opposite Marcello Mastroianni, and accepted an Honorary Oscar in 1991. Last fall, she return to Hollywood to present an Honorary Oscar to Lina Wertmuller, nervously holding hands with Isabella Rossellini backstage, the daughter of movie star Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini.
Netflix asked Rossellini to conduct a Zoom panel discussion with Loren, who this time held hands with her director, the son of her late producer husband, Carlo Ponti. “I love working with my son,” she said. “I want to work with my son always. The soul we have in common.”
To play Madame Rosa, Loren drew from her own Naples wartime experiences with her sister and mother, who suffered through nightly bombings. For his part, Ponti said he internalized “objective” feedback from his mother on his early script efforts. He knew what she could do, but he also tried to give her new challenges.
While Loren understood the rigors of working with non-pros from her De Sica days, it was a challenge for the veteran of 120 films to act opposite non-pro Ibrahima Gueye, who was the first of 350 kids auditioned by Ponti. The Senegal emigre was so upset by having to act mean to Loren, whom he idolized, that he had to ask her for permission. Ponti had the ensemble live together so they could get more familiar with each other.