Adapted by director Edoardo Ponti and co-screenwriter Ugo Chiti from Romain Gray’s novel of the same name, The Life Ahead transfers the story from Paris to the southern Italian seaside town of Bari, whose palm trees and buttery sunshine contrast with the hardscrabble realities of life for the characters. The star of the piece is ostensibly Sophia Loren, who brings a combative hauteur to the role of Madame Rosa, an Italian-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and former streetwalker who runs a kind of ad-hoc nursery for the children of her colleagues out of her apartment. While presenting herself as diamond-hard, Rosa is beginning to chip a little around the edges, and more in need of a friend than she would admit.
The film’s true star, though, is Ibrahima Gueye. His attention-grabbing brio is a strong fit for the role of Momo, a Senegalese orphan with a wily and entrepreneurial flair for thievery, dealing, and various kinds of street criminality. Momo’s exhausted foster parent, Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), agonizes about the boy’s zest for trouble. When he asks Rosa to take Momo in, she’s hardly overflowing with motherly generosity, which isn’t surprising given that she recognizes him as “that little shit” who stole her purse at the start of the film.
Rosa finally agrees to house him once her well-honed negotiating skills have secured her a decent monthly stipend for his care. Perhaps inevitably, Momo does little to endear himself to the household, sparring with the other kids in Rosa’s care. And while he notices the woman’s spells of blank confusion when she wanders off to a basement hideaway, he doesn’t think much of them. The Life Ahead itself also appears somewhat less interested in her story than Momo’s, relegating much of her screen time to her efforts to corral her rebellious charge.
With its tough-minded characters from divergent cultures finding a common bond despite their differences, the film doesn’t deliver much in the way of surprises, but it turns out to be a starker and more honest piece of work than it might initially seem. Even with the mentoring efforts of Mr. Hamil (Babak Karimi), a kindly Muslim storekeeper who Rosa enlists to serve as a kind of father figure to Momo, the boy continues to run the streets. Most days he sells drugs for Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi), a Fagin-like dealer whose approval of Momo’s work ethic provides an addictive positive reinforcement for the otherwise directionless boy. “I’m not going to suck up to happiness,” Momo says defiantly in the narration that comes and goes throughout Ponti’s film, almost as though trying to convince himself. “If it shows up, great.”
While there’s no suggestion that dealing for Ruspa is a solid life choice, The Life Ahead does a better job than many stories about wayward youth by being truthful about how enticing a life of crime can be. With the Bari police seemingly posing little threat to his livelihood, Momo can enjoy the pride of being good at his job and cruise around the city on a brand new, tricked-out bike. In those moments, he briefly beams with a kind of happiness that he seems so unfamiliar with that it’s difficult for him to even process. Gueye’s brazen confidence and sly charm in the scenes of Momo working the levers of the city’s underground economy and enjoying his success are easily the film’s high points, showing him not as a helpless immigrant, but an eager operator looking to make the most of what he has.
Somewhat less impactful are the scenes between Rosa and Momo. Despite Rosa’s exasperation with her new ward, they share more than they initially admit. Both survivors who lash out at anybody who gets too close, they see in each other an unspoken flintiness and unwillingness to admit just how much love they crave. Eventually seeing the advantages of teaming up against a world that doesn’t seem to understand either of them, they form an unlikely bond. That relationship barely starts to build up a head of steam, though, before events cut it short.
Deeply humane but spare in its emoting, The Life Ahead avoids shifting into a more sentimental gear even as Rosa’s spells of confusion worsen. “In Auschwitz, I would hide under the floorboards,” is the most she tells Momo, the film letting the blank look of horror that comes over Rosa during her spells tell the rest. While both are haunted by their pasts, the film tries to give Momo and Rosa the dignity of not being completely trapped by them.