“The boy needs a female figure. Someone who commands respect.”
Lola, the trans prostitute stops in to visit her son Babu who’s being looked after by 86-year old Mama Rosa, as she’s known to everyone. Rosa doesn’t get paid much for the favor, so Lola’s brought her some of her own slightly used make-up, and Rosa, who stills likes looking after herself, is pleased with the trade. Lola puts a record on the phonograph and a samba song begins to play. She starts dancing, encouraging Rosa to join her. “Not today, I’m not in the mood,” she protests. Lola urges her, and Rosa starts to shimmy up from the couch, her shoulders undulating. Soon the two women have their hands on each other’s shoulders and their hips are swaying to the rhythm of the music. The warm morning sun caresses the face of the timeless performer. All of a sudden we remember moments from an earlier movie in which a record is played, and our forever star was also encouraged to dance. It was 1963’s “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Her power to enthrall us hasn’t been diminished by time — Sophia Loren remains a screen goddess.
After a decade-long absence, Loren returned to cinema with last November’s “The Life Ahead” (2020) which has become an international streaming hit. The film is the third adaptation of Romain Gary’s prize-winning 1975 novel “The Life Before Us.” The 1977 version, entitled “Madame Rosa,” starred Academy Award winner Simone Signoret in her only Cesar (France’s Oscar) Best Actress performance. The film won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The latest rendering is co-written by Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son with producer Carlo Ponti. Ponti transposes the novel’s setting from Paris to the present day picturesque Italian coastal town of Bari with its labyrinth of alleyways which foster prostitution, crime and illegal immigration. It retains the important themes of tolerance and inclusion.
Madame Rosa (Loren) is a former street worker herself who makes end meet by sheltering abandoned or orphaned children of sex workers, with the help of Dr. Cohen, a local doctor. The housing is meant to be temporary until each child finds more suitable or permanent accommodations. She teaches them to read and even speak Hebrew. She also imparts other lessons, including self-respect and dignity. Currently she’s looking after Iosif and Lola’s toddler. She’s been doing this work for years, and now some of her former students are part of the local police. She’s a Holocaust survivor, and keeps a secluded secret room in the basement of her building where she finds solace with her remembrances. She’s also started to show signs of dementia.
One day while at the market hocking two old candelabras to make rent, she gets mugged by 12 year old street urchin Momo, an immigrant from Senegal. He happens to be one of Dr. Cohen’s latest protegees and while returning the stolen property, the idea of him staying with Madame Rosa is proposed. She’s reticent but Dr. Coen pleads with Rosa that there’s good in the boy. A local thug who wants Momo to deal drugs for him tells him to stay with her. It’s a perfect setup that will keep the young boy under the radar.
Their relationship starts off turbulently, and slowly turns into a truly wondrous bond. They may be separated by age, religion and race but they’ve both learnt to fend for themselves and have been on the fringes of an unforgiving society. They’ve been knocked about until they fortuitously stumble into each other. Momo who lost his mother at a very stage in his life is primed for the stern but caring way of Madame Rosa’s. “You’re a little s–t,” she mentions, “but I know you keep your word.” Momo starts to see that she’s ailing and that looking after her is a way to right all the wrong in his life. He may not have been cared for and loved but he can now give it.
If this is Loren’s last performance, this makes for a terrific way to sign off and be remembered. The star quality is there, but she’s not phoning things in. I’ll be blunt, the sheer sight of her is enough, but to my delight there’s a careful calibration in the role when she starts showing signs of dementia and slowly progresses into further frailty. She has always been and remains a force of nature on the screen, and her son has lovingly crafted a film that showcases all her strengths. It gets emotional towards its last reel, but it’s well earned. It has a terrific score by Gabriel Yared, and perennial Oscar nominee for best song, Diane Warren pens an emotional anthem, “Lo Si (Seen)” sung by Laura Pausini.
Long live this lioness of cinema.
Momo: “Some say that everything is written, that you can’t change anything.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Written by Ugo Chiti, Edoardo Ponti and Fabio Natale
Based on the book by Romain Gary
Directed by Edoardo Ponti
Starring Sophia Loren and Ibrahima Gueye
Director and Co-Screenwriter Edoardo Ponti on Bringing “The Life Ahead” to the Screen
“I always loved Romain Gary’s book. I had two books on my nightstand that I always knew that one day I would turn into a film: the first was ‘The Human Voice,’ which I made with my mother four years ago, and then there was this one, ‘The Life Ahead.’ What really attracted me to this project was first of all the story of the friendship between these two people, the old lady and the kid, who are the unlikeliest pair in literature, different in age, culture, religion, everything. But at the same time, they are just two opposite sides of the same coin. So, the coming together of these two people, who are apparently opposites but yet are so similar – they were both raised on the streets, scarred by suffering and defined by both pain and hope – was something that very much touched me. And, as I was saying, I loved the fact that the novelist writes the story through the point of view of this young immigrant child. The underlying empathy he had for the boy was something that very much inspired me.” (goldenglobes.com)
Director Edoardo Ponti on Directing His Mother and the Role of Madame Rosa
“About four years ago, when I felt it was the right time for me to do it, I suggested this film to Mom. Of course, she knew Gary’s book very well, and she loved the character of Madame Rosa, a seminal character in world literature. We both jumped at the opportunity of telling that story – and of working together again, because we love working together. So, it was really kind of a win-win in that way, a great book, a great role and another great experience together. The film was intended for theatrical distribution, of course, in the pre-Covid days. Now it’s one of those Netflix originals that started in the theaters and then got taken up by the streaming platform. It opened worldwide in 190 countries, and it was very well received everywhere!”
“…There are certain characters that hit a frequency that aligns itself with my mother’s. So, when I started reading this character, her voice came in immediately. For most directors, they don’t want to hear an actor’s voice in their head when they’re reading, when they’re writing, because then they might not get them. But in this case, when I was hearing my mother’s voice, I thought, Well, at least I know I can get her on the phone. I mean, it was no guarantee she would do the movie, because Sophia Loren didn’t build her success by saying yes to everybody that called. But I knew at least I could get her attention.
With Madame Rosa, there was no question in my mind. This sense of a character that was full of contradictions. She’s soft, but tough. She’s dramatic, but funny. There’s something very poetic about these contradictions, and they not only reminded me of my mother and my mother’s voice, but also of my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Like Madame Rosa, both of them had lived through war. My mother, of course, didn’t go through the Holocaust, but she experienced the Second World War. She tasted what it was to be under the bombs, the hunger, seeing dead bodies in the streets. All these are things that will mark you forever, especially when you see them at such a young age. I felt my mother would be not just the best, but the only person to play this role.” (deadline.com)
About Author Romain Gary
Romain Gary (1914–1980) was born Roman Kacew in Vilnius to a family of Lithuanian Jews. He changed his name when he fled occupied France to fight the Nazis as an RAF pilot. Using several different pen names throughout his life, Gary was the only writer to have received the Prix Goncourt twice. Also a diplomat and a filmmaker, Gary was married to the American actress Jean Seberg. He died in Paris in 1980 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (ndbooks.com)
About Composer Gabriel Yared
Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared is one of the most respected and renowned composers in film today. He won the Academy Award for his score to Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” which also garnered a Golden Globe and Grammy Award. He received a Grammy nomination for “City of Angels,” directed by Brad Silberling, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for the pilot to the critically acclaimed “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” His scores for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” were both nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe. His other film scores include “Coco Chanel” & “Igor Stravinsky,” “The Actress’ Ball,” “The Hedgehog,” “Adam Resurrected,” “1408,” “Shall We Dance,” “Sylvia,” “Autumn in New York,” “Message in a Bottle,” and “Amelia.” Yared also scored Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” as well as her follow up film “By the Sea” for Universal Pictures. Yared’s work can be found in films including “The Promise” directed by Terry George and starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, “If You Saw His Heart” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, and “It’s Only The End of the World” directed by Xavier Dolan and starring Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux…Yared composed music for the film “The Happy Prince” directed by Rupert Evertt and starring Colin Firth and “The Death and Life” of John F. Donovan directed by Xavier Dolan. Yared grew up in Lebanon, where he studied music theory and performance. After obtaining a law degree, he began composing for films in France, making his debut with Jean Luc-Godard’s “Every Man for Himself.” He has scored over 100 French and American films, lending an old-world elegance to them all. “As a composer,” Yared says, “I go into exploring musical ideas to their limits.” (kraft-engel.com) Yared’s most recent projects include “Dilili in Paris” (2018), “The Death & Life of John F. Donovan” (2018), “Judy” (2019), “Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser” (2019), “Broken Keys” (2020) and most recently “The Life Ahead” in 2020.
About Sophia Loren
She began in Italy as a teenager, working her way up at Cinecittà Studios in Rome from roles as an extra — such as the slave girl in creaky 1951 sword-and-sandal epic “Quo Vadis” — to starring in films for Vittorio De Sica, and on to Hollywood. But Loren insists, “My life was not easy at all.” Born under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, Loren was 6 when war broke out, and Naples — just east of her hometown of Pozzuoli — was a regular target of Allied air raids. Scrambling for cover in bomb shelters became a kind of routine, and during one attack, she was struck by a piece of shrapnel, leaving a small scar on her chin. “During the war in Pozzuoli, I would take refuge in movie houses and be immersed in all these amazing Hollywood films and daydream about all the Hollywood stars,” Loren says. Echoes of this traumatic period reverberate throughout her filmography: in the resourceful desperation of a wartime mother trying to protect her daughter in “Two Women,” in the blind allegiance an average housewife shows Mussolini in “A Special Day,” in the bombing of the brothel where the shell-shocked prostitute hides at the outset of “Marriage Italian Style.” As a girl in Pozzuoli, the future Ms. Loren went by Sofia Scicolone, which was a source of some controversy in the conservative Catholic town, since the surname belonged to Sofia’s father, who had refused to marry her mother, Romilda Villani, leaving the family to fend for itself. “It was very difficult to go to school because people were kidding that I had no father,” she remembers. Loren’s mother bore a remarkable resemblance to Greta Garbo. She dyed her hair blond and took her daughter to see Garbo’s movies. “Sometimes she was so much like Greta Garbo that people were stopping in the street just to have an autograph. But this was not something that I was looking for. When these kinds of things happen when you are very young, you are ashamed,” Loren explains. She would watch her mother bask in the attention and think to herself, “She’s nobody.” Villani may have looked like a screen icon, but she had no interest in acting and didn’t understand her daughter’s obsession with movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr. “She was not at my side to really give me what I needed,” Loren recalls. “I wanted to be on the screen. If I hadn’t become an actress, I think I would have died.”
Around the age of 14 or 15, Loren pressured her mother to move the family to Rome, hoping to reconnect with her absent father. There she hustled to find a way into the film industry in earnest. Competing in beauty contests, she landed opportunities to appear in fotoromanzi — pulp photo-novel magazines such as Sogno, in which beautiful models acted out brief melodramas through still photographs. It was good practice for a screen career, and a chance to build awareness with audiences. During this time the future Sophia Loren received her first professional name change, to Sofia Lazzaro. It was also then, at age 16, that she met producer Carlo Ponti, 22 years her senior, whom she would later marry. But that love story was still a long way off, and Loren says Ponti was always respectful. Of the #MeToo movement that has shed light on a culture of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, she says, “These things happened to others but not to me.” In Loren’s case, Ponti spotted her at a beauty contest, asked to meet her for drinks and suggested that she take a screen test. In her 2014 memoir, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” (named after De Sica’s popular anthology film in which she stole the show, delivering a now-famous striptease for Mastroianni that director Robert Altman cheekily re-created in “Prêt-à-Porter”), Loren refers to the many compromises other Italian actors made to launch their careers. She recalls a conversation where Ponti hinted that she should do something to soften her “dominant profile.” Loren shot down the idea. “I’ve been working without you knowing about it with this nose, which I’m never going to change,” she told him, feigning offense at the subject all these years later. “My nose is going to stay there forever. I like it. It has a lot of personality.” Today, it’s impossible to imagine Loren with any face other than the one the world knows: soft and sensual from the front, sharper in profile, but resolute from any angle. Early on, cameramen had to adapt their techniques to shoot her, adjusting the lighting so as not to create unflattering shadows — yet Loren went on to become one of the 20th century’s most recognizable beauty icons. When she applied eyeliner to extend the natural shape of her lids, the whole world copied her signature cat eyes. “I think what has made her attractive,” Edoardo Ponti observes, “is how comfortable she is with who she is, not only the parts that are undeniably universally beautiful. She owns all of herself.” Her name, on the other hand, was something Sofia Scicolone was willing to change, and she landed on Sophia Loren at the suggestion of Italian producer Goffredo Lombardo, with whom she worked on “Africa Under the Seas” in 1953. As Loren describes it, “He was working with an actress from Holland, Märta Torén, who was very well known. He said, ‘Well, I have to give you a name because people have to know who you are,’” so he took Torén’s last name and changed the first letter, anglicizing Sofia’s first name in the process. “So from then on, I was called Sophia Loren,” she says. “And that’s who I am. I am Sophia Loren. It was very normal. They were looking for a name, and they gave me Sophia Loren,” she laughs, adding, “Better than nothing.”
The following year, after a series of small roles, Loren landed her big break in “The Gold of Naples,” produced by Ponti and directed by actor-turned-neorealist-auteur De Sica. Like Loren, the filmmaker had grown up in the region, and he cast her as a pizza girl who turns heads wherever she goes. “That was a great role for me,” beams Loren, still amazed at a part that “gave me the chance to be myself at 18, to be Neapolitan for the Neapolitan people. That was my luck, because when the film came out, I really burst. I started to ask for better roles, and I was becoming known by the public in the streets.” De Sica directed Loren in six more films, acting alongside her in several more, and she credits him with giving her confidence as a performer. “De Sica was the one who really made it happen for me,” she says. That same year, 1954, sparked another fruitful partnership when Loren was cast opposite Mastroianni, who would become her most steady co-star. “From the very first film we made together, ‘Too Bad She’s Bad,’ we hit it off, Marcello and me. Our chemistry worked because we made each other laugh. He was so funny,” says Loren…Based in Rome in the late 1950s, Loren managed to act in a handful of American movies. Directors would come to shoot overseas and cast her, as Henry Hathaway did for desert adventure “Legend of the Lost” with John Wayne. “When I was very well known in Italy, America called the production [company] asking for my name, saying maybe they had a role for me in a picture with Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, many good American actors,” explains Loren, who took the leap and moved to Los Angeles in 1957…Her first Hollywood project following her move, “The Pride and the Passion,” actually shot in Spain and went south when Frank Sinatra walked off the picture. But Loren clicked with the film’s star, Cary Grant…Grant proved to be a good friend and went above and beyond to protect her from being pigeonholed as a sex symbol, going as far as to challenge a sketch that cartoonist Al Hirschfeld had made for the film that featured Loren in a plunging neckline, standing beside a phallic cannon. Loren landed a five-picture deal with Paramount, which reunited her with Grant a few years later on “Houseboat,” a romantic comedy whose final wedding scene was shot just days after Loren and Ponti were married by proxy in Mexico.
“I was aware of how painful it was for him to play this scene with me,” she’s quoted as saying in the book “Evenings With Cary Grant,” which makes it especially poignant that the actor was the one to deliver the news of her Oscar win for “Two Women” in 1962. Loren was only the second actor nominated for a non-English-language speaking role, after Greek star Melina Mercouri (“Never on Sunday”), and the first to win. She did not attend the ceremony but remained in Italy, going to bed that night convinced she would lose to Audrey Hepburn (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) or Natalie Wood (“Splendor in the Grass”). “At 6 in the morning, the phone rings. I said to my husband, ‘Who is calling at this hour?’” she remembers. She picked up, “and Cary was there, and he said, ‘You won!’ I was so moved. I really, really didn’t expect anything like that. I hung up right away because I thought I was going to faint.” Loren would continue to alternate English- language roles with Italian movies for the rest of her career, working closely with Ponti to create opportunities where she could express herself most effectively. “Carlo was a great producer,” she says. “He invented the Italian cinema in America. For years, we did films in Italy, but they never went to America. Then with Carlo, they went to America because he had found other producers in America.” There had been Italian film stars before Loren, of course. Anna Magnani was “the best Italian actress,” in Loren’s estimation, and Gina Lollobrigida paved the way for the Italian sex symbol several years before. But none broke through to the international market as Loren did — for which she was celebrated with an honorary Oscar in 1991. Loren’s reputation allowed her to work with a “fairy tale” roster of first-class directors: Michael Curtiz (“A Breath of Scandal”), Carol Reed (“The Key”), Anthony Mann (“El Cid”), Stanley Donen (“Arabesque”), Lina Wertmüller (“Blood Feud”) and the one she remembers most fondly, Charlie Chaplin. “He was at the end of his career, and we all knew it was his last picture,” Loren says of 1967’s “A Countess From Hong Kong,” which paired her with the tortured but brilliant Marlon Brando, whom she euphemistically describes as being “a little difficult.” Still, she was so charmed by Chaplin, who performed all the parts for his cast so they could see how he envisioned them, that “we all did the best we could to give him what we had inside. He was a wonderful person.” Now, as her career enters its eighth decade, Loren is far more selective about her projects. On that front, her son has a distinct advantage: He can pitch his mom on a role as special as Madame Rosa. “I think right now, if she were to go in front of the camera again — which she would be happy to do — it would have to be a role that she can’t pass up, or a director she wants to work with,” Ponti says.
According to Loren, “When you’re very young, you have to accept everything that comes. I love to work, as long as it’s something I really care about. Otherwise, to work just to work, no.” With “The Life Ahead,” the material touched Loren on an emotional level. True to the novel, this latest adaptation is told from young Momo’s point of view, calling for a kind of subtlety that appealed to the passionate performer, with her extroverted Neapolitan personality — which is to say, “The Life Ahead” reveals a side of Loren most audiences haven’t seen. All those years ago, when the two were making “Aurora” together, Ponti couldn’t stop himself from correcting Loren’s instincts. Now he says, “One of the great things about my mother, when she comes on set, she’s 1,000% prepared.” She knows her lines, she has figured out the character, and she’s ready to shoot. “That preparation allows her to relax and let go of everything in front of the camera. At 11, maybe I was a bit less prepared.” At that age, Ponti knew he wanted to be a director, sure as his mother had sensed her own destiny. Luck may have played some part, but Loren believes there was never any other option for her. “If you are convinced of what you want to be, there isn’t anything that can destroy it inside of you. It’s like a fever. It’s the only thing you think about,” she says, adding, “It’s incredible. When I speak about these things, I feel like I did it yesterday. I feel very, very young.” (variety.com)
About Director and Co-Screenwriter Edoardo Ponti
“When I was 4, my brother who is four years older would practice piano in the living room,” Ponti recalled…“I remember very specifically. I was next to him playing with my cars and little toy ships using his music as the musical score to my scenes. When he played a dramatic piece, I would use that to have my ships sink; when he practiced something more high octane, I switched to a car chase.” You could say filmmaking is in Ponti’s blood. His family’s influence is most evident in his eyes, the same vivid hazel as those of his mother, Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren, and in his profile, which echoes that of his late father, prolific movie producer Carlo Ponti. (His brother, Carlo Ponti Jr., whose practice provided the score to Edoardo’s playtime, is now a composer and orchestra conductor.) He has written and directed the feature films “Between Strangers” (2002) and “Coming & Going” (2011), and has also written, directed and produced several stage plays, as well as an opera. Most recently, Ponti adapted Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play “La Voix Humaine” into a short film starring Loren. When it comes to filmmaking, Ponti considers himself less of an artist and more of a craftsman. “I’ve always approached film as a craft,” he explained. “That means practice, discipline and not being afraid to take risks.” Ponti credited his parents for instilling in him a strong work ethic that lends itself to this apporach. “My parents taught me not to take anything for granted, nothing is owed to you. You have to work hard for it,” he said. “You cannot reach your potential unless you work hard to sharpen your craft.” …when he was starting out, Ponti moved to L.A. to follow his dream. At 18, he enrolled in the cinematic arts program at USC, ranked among the top in the nation. Immediately, he felt that he had made a mistake. “A month in, I realized that studying film so young wasn’t the best way for me to become a filmmaker,” Ponti said. “Film was the tool I’d be using to tell stories, but in order for me to get the emotional and life ammunition to be able to tell stories, I had to study writing and the great authors.” Ponti switched his major from film to creative writing and made poetry the focus of his studies. “I’ve always written poetry, so for me it was a very natural mode of expression,” he explained. “Poetry is about getting at the core of things. It’s about the universe of the detail but also about rhythm. And film is also about rhythm, detail and finding the essence in every moment.”
Ponti eventually returned to study film, earning his master’s from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1998. But studying poetry helped Ponti to build his toolkit. “When I write poetry I’m at my freest,” Ponti said. “It has become an amazing way to express anything I want without the confines of a narrative. Whatever I want to say, I can say in poetry.” Ponti described his earliest poems as incredibly long, and very personal. It was when he began to direct his writing into short, focused narratives that a light bulb went on for him as a storyteller. “It liberated me,” he said. “I could pack as much meaning into a vehicle that was much shorter. And that really has to do with discipline and rhythm. Finding the right rhythm for the right message was something that I really learned in poetry. And that, in film, is enormously important because that’s one of the ways you start thinking of tone.” Ponti counts David St. John, University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at USC Dornsife, as one of his most esteemed mentors. Ponti recalled that in his writing workshops, St. John would be both very objective and sharp in his feedback but, at the same time, very gentle and human about it. “You would allow yourself to listen to his criticism,” Ponti said. “You were elevated by it. And that was a wonderful way for all of us to come together to share our innermost feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental environment — an environment that really helped us sharpen that skill through intelligent, constructive criticism. “To this day, when I write a poem, it is David’s voice that I hear,” he said. If it sounds like St. John could read his poem — that the words fit his vocal pattern — Ponti will keep it. He called St. John his “aural litmus test of whether or not a poem works.” Studying poetry also reinforced for Ponti the fact that discipline is essential for success, especially for someone working in a creative field. That means tapping into inspiration as time allows, not just waiting for the muse to strike. “That’s what being a professional means. You can switch on inspiration,” Ponti said. “If your schedule only allows you to write between the hours of 1 and 6 p.m., what happens if inspiration strikes at 6:30? You missed that train and that can’t happen, so you have to be able to access inspiration almost at will. It becomes a muscle. The more you write, the more you can access it.” As an undergraduate, he would “switch on” his inspiration using the commute from USC to his home 40 miles north of Los Angeles to write a poem every day. “I had this self-imposed exercise in college. It’d take me around one hour to drive back home from USC and I would use that time to compose a poem. I would create it in my mind as I was driving, repeating the lines I liked, and adding to those verses. I never used a Dictaphone. And when I got home, I had a poem that I would transcribe. I wrote countless poems like this, in my head, stuck on the 101 freeway. You could say that the 101 became my muse!” The time Ponti spent mulling over his words became an important blueprint for his creative process. “It’s about sharpening your ability to envision something before it exists,” he explained. “That period of gestation is very important because that’s how your inner life and your experiences are allowed to merge.” However, Ponti embraces the moments when his creativity is sparked organically. After all, a storyteller’s antennae are always up, he said. “If writing or telling stories is your passion, you don’t even do it consciously. That part of you is always on, seeking out the next story or image or moment from the most mundane detail in life. The trick is to uncover the magic in the mundane.” (dornsife.usc.edu) Ponti’s works include “Between Strangers” (2002), “Away We Stay” (2010), “Coming & Going” (2011), “The Nightshift Belongs to the Stars” (2012), “Human Voice” (2014) and most recently “The Life Ahead” in 2020.