How do we become who we become? How does the raw clay—the skin and bones and DNA we’re born with—take the shape of who we are?
We’re molded, that’s how. Molded by time and events and, most of all, by people. But we mold ourselves, too. Sometimes, we even choose our own sculptors.
Momo has had very little chance to shape his own life. Even though he’s just 12 years old, those years have pounded him hard. He’s a refugee from Senegal, and an orphan at that. For years, except for the kindly Dr. Coen, he’s been all alone, surviving through will and wiles and the occasional petty theft.
But then he steals a pair of candlesticks from the wrong—or right—woman.
They call her Madame Rosa, and she doesn’t take kindly to brats who swipe her candlesticks. She’s too old for such nonsense, too worn out. And when they cross paths again, Momo has little use for the old bag, either. When Dr. Coen drags the boy to Rosa’s house to make him apologize, the sullen “sorry” drips with disrespect.
“Apology not accepted!” thunders Rosa. And that, it seems, is that.
But Coen has a favor to ask Rosa, who runs a sort of daycare center for the children of the neighborhood’s prostitutes. Would she take in Momo? Just for a week or two?
Madame Rosa refuses. But when Coen offers to pay her, she reconsiders. Momo, too, balks at the new arrangement. But Momo’s new boss—the man who gives the 12-year-old drugs to sell—also believes the arrangement might be good for business. Better for business than Momo ending up in social services, that’s for sure.
Momo knows life is hard. The only way to survive is being hard right back. He doesn’t want to be clay, but stone.
Rosa knows something about how circumstances can turn you stony. The green-gray numbers tattooed on her wrist—a souvenir from Auschwitz—prove that. And maybe, these two hard people can soften each other up a little. If they so choose.
Momo’s not an easy kid to like, much less love. He walks into Rosa’s house as a 12-year-old bully who treats most of the adults in his life with utter contempt.
But kindly Coen knows that Momo, with a little guidance, can be better than that. “What the boy needs is a strong female figure,” he tells Rosa. And indeed, Rosa’s exactly the sort of person Momo needs.
Funny thing, though: While Momo respects Rosa’s strength early on, it’s her weaknesses that bring out his best. When she begins wandering off and forgetting where she is, Momo’s forced into the role of protector—not just to help her, but the other children in her care, as well.
Rosa isn’t the only positive influence in Momo’s life, though. She talks a friendly merchant named Hamil into serving as a kind of mentor, as well, asking him to let Momo work in his shop for a few days a week. Hamil, like Rosa, is reluctant to take Momo on. But he does and, in the process, Hamil slowly guides Momo toward a more productive path.
Part of Hamil’s influence on Momo is religious. They’re both, technically, Muslim.
Momo’s real first name is Mohammed (though he dislikes it because it’s too long), and he didn’t even know that he was Islamic until he learned that fact school. Hamil doesn’t press the faith on Momo, but he does try to educate the boy about his heritage.
Hamil unfurls a rug in his store’s back room and shows Momo the lion embroidered on it. “In the Qur’an, the lion is a symbol of power, patience and faith,” he tells Momo. “You have faith, right? Faith is like love.” Hamil doesn’t know it, but the lion imagery impacts Momo deeply, given that the boy sometimes hallucinates and sees a lioness coming to visit him, licking him on his face with her rough tongue.
Rosa, meanwhile, is Jewish. We don’t see much evidence of her faith, but she does seem know what she’s doing when she tries to tutor Iosef, another child in her care, in how to read Hebrew. (He’s studying for a Bar Mitzvah that he doesn’t really want.)
When Momo suggests that she and Hamil should really get together, Hamil says no. Even though he likes Rosa very much, he still says, “I could never marry a Jew.” “Madame Rosa’s not Jewish anymore,” Momo tells him. “She’s just old.”
We see a few outward manifestations of Christianity, too, including Christian churches and mausoleums. The only character who seems to be Christian, though, is Momo’s drug-dealer boss, who has a picture of the Virgin Mary hanging up in his apartment.
One final note on that subject, though: Hamil tries to tell Momo about Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s deeply Christian novel that (Hamil suggests) offers some different definitions of what’s good and what’s evil. It’s also telling that the book prominently features a pair of stolen candlesticks, too—candlesticks that open the door of grace to the person who stole them.
Madame Rosa worked the streets as a prostitute for 40 years, we’re told. Now she cares for other prostitutes’ children.
We meet only one of the “mothers”: Lola, a sex worker who used to be a male middleweight boxer. The prostitute has clearly undergone some sex gender-changing surgery or therapy, given the size of Lola’s breasts. A child fishes out a sex toy from Lola’s purse, which Lola quickly snatches away by saying that “it’s for work.”
We learn that Momo’s mother was a prostitute as well: She was killed by Momo’s father after announcing she didn’t want to work the streets anymore. Some women, including Rosa, wear garments that reveal a bit of underwear and cleavage.
When Hamil asks Momo why he doesn’t go to school anymore, Momo says he got kicked out for stabbing a bully in the neck with a pencil. He threatens to slit Iosef’s throat if he snitches, too.
A teen (and rival drug dealer) roughs Momo up a couple of times: Once he leaves the 12-year-old with a bleeding cut on the temple. Later he punches Momo in the stomach and walks away, leaving the kid to heave and catch his breath. Iosef seems to love kickboxing: We see lots of pictures and posters up on the wall pointing to the sport.
Rosa tells Momo how she used to hide under the barracks floor in Auschwitz. And as her mind starts to falter, she imagines that evildoers are coming to get her. She has a terror of hospitals, likely because of her experience in the Nazi concentration camp, believing that the doctors “torture” and “experiment” on their patients.
Though Netflix rates this film PG-13, it does so only by ignoring the language.
Perhaps that’s because the movie is mostly in Italian: If you use the film’s English overdub mode, you hear a few English f-words. If you plug in the subtitles, you read a few more. All told, we hear (or read) six f-bombs, as well as another 10 s-words and a c-word (heard in an Italian-language song dutifully translated in the subtitles). You’ll also be exposed to “a–,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused thrice, once with the word “d–n.” We see someone flip an obscene gesture.
As mentioned, Momo sells drugs—marijuana (including synthetic marijuana) and hashish mostly. We see some small bags of the stuff and watch as a few deals are made—at first with folks just on the streets, but eventually at school, where Momo peddles the drugs to both tweens and teens, as well as their teachers. His “boss” ushers him into a very adult party, giving him booze. Later, he brings Momo over to his house and serves the boy wine, which Momo rejects.
Rosa smokes cigarettes. Lola smokes strawberry-scented cigarettes, which Rosa scorns. “Smoke should smell like tobacco, not fruit salad,” she says. When Momo talks about the lioness licking him, Iosef accuses him of being high. (He’s not.)
One of the prostitute’s children whom Rosa watched a long time ago grew up to become the chief of police. We’re told that he now keeps the law off Rosa’s illicit daycare center. When Rosa goes comatose on the rooftop one day, Momo and Iosef try to get her to snap out of it by making lots of flatulence noises.
Momo is, to be frank, a little jerk sometimes. He backtalks, disobeys and swears at the adults who care for him, and he even sullenly destroys Hamil’s precious copy of Les Misérables.
Most American Netflix viewers will be drawn to The Life Ahead for one reason: Sophia Loren. The 86-year-old Italian bombshell from Hollywood’s Golden Age has snagged some of the best acting accolades of her life here, playing an aging Holocaust survivor. Some wonder whether she might, after a 70-year career, snag her second Oscar.
But while viewers may tune in for Loren, they’ll take away a poignant, if problematic, story.
Let’s not beat around the bush: The Life Ahead is the story of a pre-adolescent drug dealer and a longtime prostitute. Most of the people here, if they walked into a church potluck, would be the subject of many a raised eyebrow.
Which means, of course, they’re exactly the sort of folks whom Jesus came to hang out with and, ultimately, save.
Jesus doesn’t feature prominently here, of course. You have to dig deep to find Him here at all. But this is a story of love and redemption, and how the first can lead to the second. And it offers a message that’s near and dear to Focus on the Family’s heart: That loving, caring, patient adults can make all the difference in a child’s life. And they don’t need to be related by blood to make that difference.
That doesn’t excuse the film for its content issues or some of the other underlying messages it might send. Certainly, despite its laughable PG-13 rating, this isn’t a movie for kids. But it does remind us that kids need strong hands and kind hearts in their lives. Because those hands and hearts can make all the difference.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.