Updated: Dec 21, 2020
by Shujaat Mirza
The Life Ahead, 2020 (La vita davanti a sé), acquired and released in the original Italian on Netflix this November, starring Sophia Loren in a role of a lifetime, is a stunning vehicle for her return to cinema after a decade-long hiatus. The movie is ably supported by a refreshingly uninhibited, new talent, Ibrahima Gueye, and helmed confidently by ace director, Edoardo Ponti, who incidentally is Loren's son as well. Based on the novel, The Life Before Us (La vie devant soi ) by Romain Gary, the movie has been relocated from France to Italy in a contemporary adaptation.
At the heart of the story is Momo, a refugee living on the streets, having lost his mother, who was killed by his own father for refusing to carry on as a sex-worker. Barely escaping the arms of law having had a brush with it in school where he stuck a pencil in a classmate's neck, he is surviving on the margins of the more civilized Italian society, till he is brought under the care of Dr Coen, his assigned guardian.
Momo comes face to face with Madame Rosa, an erstwhile sex-worker, when he steals her antique candlesticks while she is taking them out to be sold at a street market. Played to perfection by yesteryear's superstar Sophia Loren in a role that allows her to inhabit it completely, Madame Rosa possess the grace and haughtiness not undermined by circumstances. Later, when Dr Coen discovers that Momo stole the candlesticks from her, whom he knows from her foster care of the children of sex workers, he takes him immediately to return her stuff and offer an apology for the theft. And in that first hostile and awkward moment, two fellow survivors meet: Momo, whose real name is Mohammed, a Senegalese refugee, and Rosa, a survivor of the holocaust. For both of them, the past sits heavy and dominates a major chunk of their active hours. Dr Coen leaves him in her care despite her protestation to the contrary. The movie essentially unfolds the way in which two totally incompatible persons forge an unlikely bond that transcends their differences and the way their tragic pasts bring them close to each other in a strangely beguiling way that fixes their incompletions.
After the initial uneasy adjustments and tiffs, the two settle into some sort of truce that comes about as a result of being aware of each other's precarity. As Momo returns home, on a rainy day, after hustling drugs and being hit by another older peddler whose territory he has appropriated, he is alerted about Madame Rosa by another boy at home (the son of an illegal immigrant Romanian sex-worker). She is on the terrace, sitting in the rain in a fugue, lost to the world in an unblinking, far-off gaze till she snaps back to the present by the ruckus the kids create to grab her attention. We see a glimpse of her internalized trauma at the concentration camp being re-lived, just as Momo dreams of a lioness, substituting as a maternal figure, licking him all over in a world where such care is non-existent.
Later, Rosa pulls Momo away from witnessing a forced eviction of African refugees by the police, to protect him from the painful sight. Having herself been through that in life, we see a tentative bond being forged between the two, premised on a similar trajectory of loss. After this incident she trusts him a bit more and allows him finally to share the room with the other kids, thus easing her acceptance of him. She retraces her journey with him, which has a shared common loss, albeit, in different circumstances and opens up to him. She tells him that she too goes to the basement to feel safe, as she realizes how his vivid daydreaming with the imagined lioness is as much of an escape from the harsh world as her escape to the basement.
She tries to keep him preoccupied by arranging for him to work at an Algerian Muslim immigrant, Hamil's shop, since she thinks it a good fit. Momo doesn't warm up to him initially and when Hamil calls him by his full name 'Mohammed', Momo asks him not to call him so. For Momo, the name isn't the thing that defines him as much as something he has been defined by. As he says, he first became aware of his religion when a classmate called him a Muslim. This exemplifies how our identities aren't permanently secured but we are many things at once. And later, when Momo asks Hamil to settle down with Madame Rosa, and Hamil explains it away, saying that he could but she is Jewish and that comes in the way, Momo says, “She is just old.”' Momo implies that all that she needs is someone to take care of her – other things are immaterial in the situation. We prefigure realities without considering the facts as they are. Ultimately it's all about being available for someone unconditionally.
There is also the separate track of Lola, a transgender sex-worker, whose toddler is in Rosa’s care, and who was a boxer in an earlier life. It portrays how those at the fringes of society foster organic bonds intrinsically by creating a separate social network with those who are denied respectability. More so, in societies which are heteronormative, patriarchal and xenophobic.
One day, Madame Rosa lets Momo enter the basement, where she goes away from time to time – a throwback to the period of hiding before she was taken to Auschwitz. And as she speaks of her fond memories, she asks him to promise her in Hebrew and repeat after her that he won't allow her to be admitted to a hospital, since it brings back demons from the past that haunt her.
Thus we see how in a span of six months Momo and Madame Rosa come close to each other and their transitions culminate somewhere in a place that they hadn't expected to arrive. As Madame Rosa gets ready to leave with a serene, secure warmth enveloping her in the basement – her safe house when nightmares disturb her -- she opens up the horizons for Momo to see the world as much better than he believes it to be and make the most of what it has to offer.
The movie leaves us with a restored faith in our innate ability to forge new bonds if we make allowances for fresh perspectives that can enable us to circumvent the limitations that often enslave us. It goes into the heart of the idea of what constitutes acceptance in a world that gives preference to an assumed normalcy. It posits a viable alternative to the increasingly divisive reality of a world built by fixed dogmas and belief systems, entrapping its self-image as a refraction of this jaundiced prism. The movie plays around the idea of the fluidity of our loosely constituted identities that are play-as-you-go building blocks, not fixed in a particular permanence, but supported by a porosity that takes place when different worlds and parallel realities collide. We live in a maze of relationships, interacting at different points with different people and each connection adding a layer upon us. This makes the relationships both indistinguishable and separate entities. These interactions germinate the seeds of diverse associations within us, making each of us possessors of not singular but multiple roles and identities – a magnetic field of a shared humanity that keeps reimagining itself constantly.
(Images are screenshots from the trailer of the film)
Shujaat Mirza is an intrepid art aficionado, curator and critic, with a passion for
multidisciplinary art. His primary area of interest is art at the intersection of visual aesthetics and verbal semantics. He is also a poet and writer and his work has been published online as well as in literary magazines.