EXCLUSIVE: Add Sophia Loren to the growing list of those whose names we are likely to hear come this Oscar awards season.
The legendary star and 1961 Best Actress Academy Award winner for Two Women, as well as the recipient of an Honorary Oscar in 1991 inscribed “for a career rich with memorable performances that has added permanent luster to our art form,” is returning to movies in The Life Ahead. She stars as Madame Rosa, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who now makes a meager living raising a number of children of prostitutes with whom she once walked the streets. Among those she takes in is Momo, a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan who steals her candlesticks. After he is forced to apologize, they form a relationship audiences around the world are not likely to soon forget when the previously undated film premieres worldwide on Netflix on November 13.
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I would call this vintage Loren, delivering perhaps the richest feature-length leading role she has had since A Special Day in 1977 and in her first full-length feature film in a decade. The Life Ahead represents the third cinematic collaboration with her son Edoardo Ponti, who directed and co-wrote the adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before Us with Ugo Chiti. Ponti, whose father was the late famed film producer Carlo Ponti, previously directed his mother in 2002’s Between Strangers, and also their very fine 2014 short film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Human Voice.
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A previous 1977 movie version of the book titled Madame Rosa starred Simone Signoret. Loren is understandably excited to have made this quite different take (the locale is now the Italian port city of Bari), a longtime dream of both mother and son.
“I was always a big fan of the book by Romain Gary. When my son proposed the role to me, it was a dream come true. I jumped at the opportunity to make it,” she tells Deadline. “First of all the story is so rich: it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s poetic but it’s also a story that is very timely as it deals with the importance of being seen and heard. It is also such a moving story of friendship between two characters that on the surface everything separates: race, religion, culture and generation, and yet they are two sides of the same coin. I loved portraying Madame Rosa. She is tough, she is fragile, she is a survivor. In many ways she reminds me of my own mother.”
In a phone conversation last week, Ponti told me how important it was to go directly back to the original book in bringing this version to life. “There were two dreams that my mother and I had for us to do together. First was Human Voice, and after we did that we wanted to do this because we both were in love with those two pieces of literature… I picked it up from my nightstand and started reading it again. And beyond the fact that it was really a shared dream to do this, I realized how very current the story was,” he says. “In a world that is increasingly polarized, increasingly separated by so many forces, social media, politics, everything, to make a movie where two people who could not be more separate and yet they come together through the power of just love and understanding and everything, I think, was extremely important. And so, that’s really what really compelled us to take this from the nightstand to the screen, in a sense, you know I think was very important for us.”
And it was a family affair for Loren. “This is the third time I worked with my son Edoardo,” she says. “It is a true gift working with a person who knows you as well as you know yourself, there is a shorthand, he gives me strength and security and he won’t give up until I give my very best. With him behind the camera, I was free to give all of myself. This is an experience I will cherish forever both as an actor and as a mother.”
Ponti said the feeling was, of course, mutual. “I’m very, very proud of my mother because you know she’s a survivor. She’s a thoroughbred in the best sense of the word. She will never give up until she will get it right and she’ll reach that level of authenticity for the character… there’s a lot of the greatest hits of who she is in this movie. There is a very strong vitality that she brings in the beginning, which I really guided her to kind of try to draw that kind of irreverence and the vitality from my grandmother, her mother. She was very much like this, very irreverent, very brash, but with a big heart. But then the parts for her that were unchartered territory were the parts when she loses her mind. Sophia Loren has never done parts where she loses her mind, when she gets into this kind of mental paralysis when we’re on the rooftop,” he said, referring to some harrowing moments in The Life Ahead where she was not even able to blink for an extended period of time.
The heart of the movie is with Momo, and those scenes in which he must interact with Madame Rosa. He is played in a remarkable and natural performance by Ibrahima Gueye.
“I want to say how proud I am of all the children who acted in the film and of course, Ibrahima,” Loren says. “This is his first film but he approached the role with such concentration, passion and emotion. Every day he surprised me and moved me. He was the best partner I could have hoped for.” He’s her latest male co-star in career that includes working opposite the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, William Holden, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter O’Toole, of course Marcello Mastroianni and way too many more to name.
Ponti says he auditioned around 350 children but that Gueye was the first one he met and thought he just can’t stop and pick the first guy. But as he continued looking the memory of that first audition kept coming back to him.
In the original book, Momo is white, an Algerian North African. “And Ibrahima was really just the best. He had the right soul for Momo,” Ponti said, though being new to acting and from a family not at all in show business he had to get to the place in rehearsals where he could be really confrontational with Madame Rosa. “This is his first movie, but he had the instinct to come to my mother during one of the rehearsals and say, ‘Sophia I have to share something with you. It’s hard for me when I get home after the scenes when I criticize you and insult you, I really have a hard time with them and they really break my heart when I’m home. So, do you mind giving me permission to be rude to you?’ And my mother was like, ‘Absolutely no problem. You know it’s acting and I’m not going to get offended.’ And from that moment on he could not have been more perfect like he is in the movie.
“Imagine the instinct. I mean, he has never been to acting school. The instinct of asking that permission so that he could unleash these things out of him it’s amazing,” the director said.
The Italian-language film is still in post-production with Ponti supervising some of the dubbing of other versions such as English and French (Netflix always offers different languages for the global release of their films), and he and Loren couldn’t be happier with the experience of working with the streamer ever since they picked up the movie, which is now being aimed as a key component of the Netflix awards-season plans. This one is high on the list of movies they will be campaigning this season.
“They create such a nurturing and supportive environment that they almost make it impossible for a director to want to work for anybody else, Ponti said. “They were champions of the movie, and even as I was writing it they were tracking the story. They’ve been amazing partners, so respectful of the story, of the tone of the piece, but at the same time guiding it in all the right ways. He added that, COVID-19 permitting, there are plans brewing for a premiere in Rome at the end of October.
Loren herself says Netflix is offering her a new experience in her career, one that spans seven decades and about 100 movies, many of them classics.
“I must say I am also thrilled that this film is being shown on Netflix and that it will be available all over the world at the same time,” she said. “I think this is the first time that this happens to one of my films. It’s very exciting.”
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