Movie Review ~ The Life Ahead

The Facts

Synopsis: In seaside Italy, a Holocaust survivor with a daycare business takes in a street kid who recently robbed her. The two loners become each other’s protectors, anchoring an unconventional family.

Stars: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Babak Karimi

Director: Edoardo Ponti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’ve talked about cinematic blind spots here before and how I admit to having a few glaring ones that I wear with some shame.  I’m still working on filling in my gaps of knowledge for my Akira Kurosawa and Charlie Chaplin histories but often times another will spring up, unannounced.  Well, I’ve discovered a new one that I have to discuss with you and I just realized it while watching legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren’s return to film after a 10-year absence in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé), premiering on Netflix.  I didn’t think it was as bad as it was but after looking over her filmography, I am seriously delinquent in my Loren filmography.  I don’t think I’ve even seen her landmark Oscar-winning performance in Two Women (La ciociara) which made her the first foreign actor to win an Academy Award.

So, while I work on adding titles from the Loren library to my queue it’s worth noting what a life this actress has had.  Over a career that is now entering it’s seventh (seventh) decade, Loren had worked regularly up until a decade ago when she decided to take a break to focus on her family.  Married for 50 years to Italian film producer Carlo Ponti until his death in 2007, she’s returning now in a movie directed by her son in their third pairing as director/star.  Adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us, interestingly enough the book was already made into an Oscar winning foreign film before, 1978’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret who some might claim as the French equivalent of Sophia Loren.  It’s a feast of a role and any actress worth their salt would make a banquet out of it.  Moved from the original setting of France to modern day Italy, Ponti’s The Life Ahead has brought his mother back to the screen with the same fire and passion that has made her one of cinema’s greatest treasures.

Ponti and his co-adapter, playwright Ugo Chiti, begin the film at the end (maybe) and then flashback six months prior to show how we got there.  A Senegalese orphan named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) spots Madame Rosa (Loren) at the open air market, a pair of expensive-looking candlesticks lazily hanging out of her shopping bag.  He steals the bag, knocking her down in the process and, unable to pawn them off for cash to the local drug dealer, he stashes them with his things which is where Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) finds them.  Knowing Madame Rosa as a patient, Coen brings Momo to return the stolen items…a meeting that doesn’t go well for either party.  Still, sensing an opportunity that has presented itself, Coen wonders if Madame Rosa would mind taking Momo in for a short time while Coen finds a better place for the boy to live.  Though she’s already watching over two children that have been left in her care, Madame Rose is tempted by Coen’s monetary offer and finds room for the child that doesn’t trust anyone and is sadly used to be shuffled around.

It’s not going to be hard for you to guess how this all turns out but The Life Ahead is less about the overall predictability of the friendship and deep connection that forms between Momo and Madame Rosa and more about the small moments along the way.  We get the sense that it’s been a while since anyone has cared about Momo and though Madame Rosa is brusque and has rules, tough love is still love and he needs everything she has to offer.  She, too, needs the kind of watchful and unflinching eye someone that is used to the horrors of life can take on.  A Holocaust survivor that became a career prostitute after the war, Madame Rosa has serious effects of PTSD that no one who hasn’t witnessed death firsthand could understand.  Though her past career might be seen as a black mark by some, Madame Rosa is actually a respected member of her tiny neighborhood and she uses her connections to get Momo a job with a kindly local shopkeeper, though he’s already begun selling drugs on the sly and gotten quite good at it.

What The Life Ahead does so well, especially in its modern setting, is portray a new kind of “family” in normal terms without it ever being about the difference that exist between them.  In addition to the unlikely pair, there’s a transgender neighbor (the excellent Abril Zamora) and the topic of her gender is only briefly touched upon – and it’s never an issue or pivot point for any action of great importance to the story being told.  That’s the thing about foreign sensibilities toward sexuality and class, it doesn’t interest them half as much as basic human interaction and getting under the surface to see what motivates emotion.  Everyone is treated as a person first and foremost and that gives them all an equality which rings completely true.  The only lack of development Ponti and Chiti could be faulted for are a handful of side characters, like the chief drug dealer who is portrayed as a kind of Fagin to Momo’s Oliver and the relationship is so ill-defined that it never totally worked for me.

What does work in every way is Loren’s glowing performance and Gueye as her incredible costar.  Even after all these years, Loren knows how to create the fine details of a character that tells you deeper truths that go beyond the surface.  This type of work needs no translation to come across loud and clear.  I’d go so far as to say that Gueye steals the movie from Loren, though.  What a stunning find, so honest in every scene and so natural in his instincts.  Watch a sequence where Momo joins his kingpin on the dancefloor and becomes the center of attention, you can see him come alive with confidence right before your eyes and the effect is truly magical.

All the being said, there’s something overly conventional about The Life Ahead that’s hard to shake away.  The plot feels familiar because the set-up has been done numerous times before, even if the ending is a certifiable tearjerker.  It all ends with a Diane Warren (The Hunting Ground) song that will likely be the songwriter’s 12th nomination but I’m not so sure this is going to be the one to get her over the finish line.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Io Si (Seen)’ is another typically lush Warren soaring tune but is it as impactful as some of her other entries?  Tough call.  One thins is certain, Loren is back in the game in a big way and might find herself an Oscar nominee at age 86.  It may not be the most original and quintessential star-vehicle but you get two for the price of one in The Life Ahead thanks to Loren and Gueye’s unforgettable work.

Movie Review ~ Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini)

The Facts

Synopsis: A gang of teenage boys stalk the streets of Naples armed with hand guns and AK-47s to do their mob bosses’ bidding.

Stars: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Renato Carpentieri

Director: Claudio Giovannesi

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I heard a movie called Piranhas was making the rounds of the festival circuit and getting accolades, my Spidey-senses started tingling. A horror movie about killer fish had received a prestigious roll out? Of course, doing my homework like every critic should clarified the film was less about razor-toothed creatures from the deep and was more in line with the growing slate of Italian-produced films centering on mafia influence and mob families. So, my dreams of monster movies making a run for Oscar gold would have to wait.  Still, these youngsters are every bit as dangerous as those pesky toe nibblers.

Originally titled the far more docile and innocuous La paranza dei bambini (The parade of children) adapted by author Roberto Saviano from his source novel “The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”, for distribution outside of Italy the film was renamed Piranhas and I can see the rationale behind it. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, piranhas aren’t usually a danger to humans unless they are in a stressful situation. By nature a timid fish, they most often gather in a school to fend off their predators when they come under attack.  The boys that form the central “school” of piranhas in this film are from poor families in a section of Naples, Italy that was once prosperous but has now fallen on hard times. These families are barely scraping by and when the young teens see an opportunity to fight back against the mafia thugs gleaning wages from the hard-working townspeople, they gather to attack. Leading the charge is Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) a 15 year old living with his single mom and younger brother who has a chance meeting with Agostino, the nephew of a former crime boss that was well respected in their infamous neighborhood, the Rione Sanità.

Teaming up with Agostino as well as his own impressionable friends that are in search of a leader and needing a purpose, they start off small by dealing drugs for a local mob boss before going across town and graduating to working with firearms. When Nicola sees they are becoming exactly like the men that have oppressed their families for so many years, he takes steps to counter their burgeoning violent acts by cleaning up his own neighborhood and making a better life for those around him. A new relationship with a girl from a rival town plays out like a West Side Story narrative without the song and dance act and only spells more trouble as loyalties change and crime begins to spin out of control.  What Nicola thought was an improvement might actually be another wave of crime he helped usher in.

There’s a lot of familiarity to be felt when watching Piranhas. We’ve seen this story countless times, youth being exploited by experience and falling prey to the excesses that come with quick success. Kids that start off the movie barely getting enough money to go out for the evening and formerly shoplifting for new clothes can now walk into these same stores with wads of cash and buy anything they want. The adrenaline that comes with their authority, as expected, begins to go to their heads and the limits of how far their influence reaches starts to be tested with increasingly dangerous results.  The changes over the course of the film are subtle, but drastic and ultimately devastating.

The movie may remind astute viewers of 2008’s similarly themed Gomorrah and for good reason. It’s based on the non-fiction book that was written by the same author that penned Piranhas. While both films deal with the Camorra (a crime-syndicate operating in Naples), Gomorrah’s narrative was more sprawling than the one taken up here. By honing in on this small group, there’s more room to get to know them, if not individually, than with some familiarity. Even if director Claudio Giovannesi doesn’t bring much in the way of style to the film,  that’s not to say it isn’t an involving experience. There’s a raw energy to the performances (many of the actors are novices) and the way he follows them through their routines gives the movie a voyeuristic feel…like we’re always watching over their shoulders and just as much at risk as they are.

The threads of the movie get a bit tangled as we near the end with some routine plot twists that at this point are, I guess, standard for any mob movie. What I appreciated about the film most was its way of reserving dialogue for only important information but letting the majority of the movie speak by the actions of the actors. A lot happens in the final few minutes of the movie and it’s largely dialogue free – yet what’s happening is as clear as if someone was narrating it for us.  These films can’t ever be classified as “pleasant” to watch but the rough edges of the cast lend authenticity to the action that makes it a compelling piece to sit through.