They don’t happen until next April, but speculation about the Oscars is already in full flow – and a surprise name is floating to the top of the current list of contenders. Sophia Loren. And if she wins Best Actress, she’ll be making history for the second time in a career that’s lasted for well over half a century. It’ll be 59 years since she won for La Ciociara, making her the first actor to win an Oscar for a film not in the English language. And bagging a second statuette for her latest film, The Life Ahead, would mean hers would be the longest gap between two Oscar victories. That record currently belongs to the late Helen Hayes, with 39 years between her wins in The Sin Of Madelon Claudet (1931) and Airport (1970). Loren would smash it record out of the park.
Not that Loren has earned a nomination yet and a lot can change in just over five months but her performance in the film can’t and won’t. In The Life Ahead, she plays an aging former prostitute who forms an unlikely friendship with a 12 year old Senegalese orphan after he steals her bag. She now looks after a clutch of young children, all of whose mothers are sex workers, and the boy Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) finds himself added to her brood, despite his constant objections. Over time, and while he earns his own patch as a drug dealer, the relationship between him and Madame Rosa (Loren) develops, as he learns about her past and she declines both physically and mentally.
Essentially a coming-of-age story, one with a warm heart bathed in Italian sunshine, it’s directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, who gives the film a reassuringly empathetic tone. He finds humanity in all the major characters, even Momo’s drug dealer boss who turns out to be father separated from his son, so it’s always obvious that, even though tears may be well and truly jerked, the conclusion of the story will be positive. It means that some of the major themes, such as the Holocaust and prejudice in various forms, are downplayed and lose some of their power. Loren also adopts the same understatement, but her credit. Hers is a face which has seen too much of life, etched with the pain of her own experiences and those of others, yet beneath a still fiery exterior, there remains a capacity to understand and care for those treated unkindly by life.
There’s almost a regal air to her performance, one that helps with the suggestion that she needed to be tough to survive. Gueye has more problems as Momo, a sullen, angry boy who finds it difficult to express his feelings – apart from in a negative way – but a natural on-screen presence sees him through, even though portraying his growing fondness for the older woman always seems hampered by the distance he’s created in the earlier stages of the film. There isn’t quite enough of the common ground they’re supposed to have discovered in each other and Momo’s final decision, while not a surprise, seems to happen all too quickly.
Some of the smaller roles are affectingly drawn. Abril Zamora is a transgender prostitute trying to hold body and soul together, despite a disapproving father, while Babak Karimi plays a Muslim shopkeeper who gives the reluctant Momo some work that he turns out to enjoy. Both are touching and believable, and give the film some of its most tender moments. Ultimately, though, this Loren’s film, one that will remind more mature viewers of her lengthy career and introduce her to younger, new audience. And that’s no bad thing.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Netflix, 13 November 2020 | Dir. Edoardo Ponti | Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Babak Karimi, Abril Zamora.