(director/writer: Edoardo Ponti; screenwriters: based on the book “La Vie Devant Soi” by Romain Gary/Ugo Chiti/Fabio Natale; cinematographer: Angus Hudson; editor: Jacopo Quadri; music: Gabriel Yared; cast:  Renato Carpentieri (Dr. Coen), Francesco Cassano (Carabiniere), Ibrahima Gueye (Momo), Massimiliano Rossi  (Ruspa, gangster), Abril Zamora (Lola, Transgender Sex Worker), Babak Karimi (Hamil), Josif Diego Pirvu (Josif), Simone Surico (Babu), Sophia Loren (Madame Rosa); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Lynda Wynman/Nicola Serra/Carlo Degli Esposti/ Regina K Scully; Netflix; 2020-Italy-in Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, with English subtitles)

The raison d’être for watching is Sophia.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sentimental and crowd-pleasing middle-brow arthouse melodrama helmed by Edoardo Ponti (“Between Strangers”/”Coming & Going”), the son of the 86-year-old Sophia Loren, who for the third time is directed by him and is her first feature-length starring role in 16 years. This more simplistic and lesser film is based on the same novel as the 1977 Oscar winner ‘Madame Rosa,’ which was set in Paris and featured a brilliant starring performance by the much younger French icon Simone Signoret. The novel “La Vie Devant Soi”  is the 1975 one by French author Romain Gary that both films are based on.

It’s co-written by Ponti, Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale. The raison d’être for watching is Sophia. The sentimental drama, a tearjerker, is set in Italy’s port of Bari–a place with many harried refugees coming over from the Mediterranean, trying to make a new life for themselves.

The story is glibly narrated by Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a sulky 12-year-old Black Muslim immigrant orphan from Senegal, who is a low-level drug dealer for local mobster Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi) and a thief living on his own in the streets and surviving by his wits. One day he robs candlesticks from the shopping bag of Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) in the busy marketplace. Some months later, his guardian, a kind local doctor, Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), asks the elderly Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and a former sex worker, who all her life after the Holocaust has taken in troubled children from prostitutes (and is now caring for two boys from working girls, one is from her charming transgender neighbor—Abril Zamora). Rosa is now asked by the doctor to take in Momo and in turn receive a nice payment that’s bargained for. She refuses Momo’s insincere apology, but agrees to take him in for a two month trial after he returns the stolen goods, no longer calls her bitch to her face and agrees to get along with the other boys she shelters.

The story is built around how these opposites bond— the elderly frail Jewish woman, haunted by ghosts from the past, plagued by an onset of dementia and suffering from dizzy spells, and the brash young Muslim trying to find his place in the world and cynically resisting attempts made to give him a crime-free path to survive in.

We learn that Rosa keeps a locked room in the basement she flees to when feeling troubled, and it resembles the room as a child she went to when hiding from the Nazis. In time she shares her grief and bitter experiences with the sympathetic kid and he comes to act as her protector, helping her get around and saving her from being hospitalized.

Rosa gets her Muslim shopkeeper friend Hamil (Babak Karimi) to instruct Momo on the difference between right and wrong and how to be a proper Muslim (even if the kid was unaware that he was a Muslim).

As their bonding grows, the film jettisons the complications and depth of the earlier film and settles for playing it safe as a more simplistic pro-immigrant feel good story, that responds to today’s headlines. The central performances seem better than the melodramatic story.

Sophia works well with the lively newcomer kid as she teaches him to make better choices in life. The kid is convincingly good in his hustler role and has a natural star presence in front of the camera. He handles himself particularly well in his first movie role that has him holding his own with the celebrated actress.

The Life Ahead

REVIEWED ON 11/13/2020  GRADE: B-