‘The Life Ahead’ Review: Sophia Loren Isn’t the Only Attraction of This Gentle Netflix Drama

On paper, “The Life Ahead” sounds like sentimental mush — orphaned immigrant kid gets rescued from a tortuous life of crime by the maternal Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who takes him in. And make no mistake: Director Edoardo Ponti, who directs his mother Sophia Loren as said survivor opposite newcomer Ibrahima Gueye as the immigrant child in question, certainly has made that kind of movie. But with its formidable odd couple at the center and Ponti’s alternately slick and sensitive direction, “The Life Ahead” manages to make the case for its hackneyed setup in real time.

While “The Life Ahead” draws from the same Romain Gary novel that inspired the 1977 Oscar-winner “Madame Rosa,” Ponti and co-writer Ugo Chiti have transplanted the setting from France to inner-city Italy and set the drama in the present day. That means cinematic grand dame Loren, returning to the screen for the first time in a decade, can play a role that fits her 86-year-old visage, and she brings a sturdy, domineering quality to the part. Yet Gueye, as the 12-year-old drug dealer forced to live under the elderly woman’s care, ends up as the real centerpiece. “The Life Ahead” may give a screen icon room to shine, but it’s even more effective as a vessel of discovery.

Gueye plays Momo — short for Mohammad — a Senegalese refugee whose broken family fell apart in his childhood. At first growing up under the care of the kindly neighborhood doctor (Renato Carpentieri), he’s brought over to Madame Rosa (Loren) after getting busted for attempting to rob her at the market. When the doctor forces Momo to apologize to the woman, he realizes the greater potential at hand. Momo’s experiences with a displaced family has more in common with this eccentric older woman than he initially realizes, and their developing bond provides a natural conduit for exploring historical parallels that pierce the cultural and generational boundaries between them.

Even without the existing template for this story, the arc of “The Life Ahead” would be predictable within its first 10 minutes. But Ponti and cinematographer Angus Hudson maintain an anxious naturalism built around Momo’s misadventures about town, as he careens from crime lords to dance parties in the midst of a city that either welcomes or stymies his reckless ambition. With a vibrant Italian hip-hop soundtrack at his side, Momo often transcends the limitations of a plot dead-set on a conventional trajectory with the restless energy of a more ambitious movie.

But that’s not really where “The Life Ahead” is heading, as the drama finds the child adapting to Madame Rosa’s tough-love approach just in time for her senility to kick in, and he struggles to find her the care she deserves. As the movie maps out a set of supporting characters to help Momo on his journey, including Lola (Abril Zamora), the intriguing trans woman who lives in their building, and Mr. Hamil (Asghar Farhadi regular Babak Karimi), a Muslim storekeeper who employs Momo and give him additional parental guidance, Momo’s journey grows considerably heavy-handed. The recurring appearance of a CGI lion who wrestles with him in his dreams doesn’t do the movie any favors.

By the time Madame Rosa’s harrowing life experience yields a pivotal monologue — “It’s when you give up hope that good things happen,” she tells the boy — it’s almost like she’s cuing the music to swell, and so it does.Still, no measure of contrived storytelling can ruin the appeal of watching Madame Rosa and Momo form their unique connection.

Loren manages to inject the jaded old woman with an endearing blend of wisdom, fatigue, and smarminess that makes her appeal to the rascally adolescent entirely credible, while Gueye should have a long career ahead of him. As the narrator of the story, Momo proves to be a combustible protagonist whose shifting allegiances push the drama forward, which allows the movie to evade some of the trappings of yet another indulgent exercise in Holocaust trauma by repositioning it through his evolving gaze.

“The Life Ahead” never manages to wrestle the sophisticated nature of the immigration crisis behind Momo’s life, trading the neorealism of Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea” and “A Ciambra” in favor of more familiar, mawkish tropes. Its bittersweet finale teeters off, concluding the flashback structure established in its opening minutes with a shrug. Before it gets there, however, “The Life Ahead” is compelling enough to make the by-the-numbers narrative worth telling, if only because with such fine-tuned performances at its center, it deserves to be told.

Grade: B-

“The Life Ahead” will be available on Netflix on Friday, November 13.

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