Still magnificent in her presence, Sophia Loren is currently gracing the Netflix screen at 86 years old in The Life Ahead, a film about a Holocaust survivor and former sex worker, Madame Rosa, who cares for the children of sex workers in her apartment in Bari, Italy.
Madame Rosa busies herself with preparing one of her Jewish charges for his bar mitzvah while taking special care that the Muslim boy living with her gets a proper education in his own religion. Her closest friend is a trans sex worker and doting mother who, alongside a Senegalese orphan, helps Madame Rosa navigate debilitating, dementia-fueled PTSD.
So, no, Loren’s latest doesn’t resemble any Holocaust film you’ve seen. But plot aside, it’s unique in another way: Directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, the film, which focuses on the lasting effects of trauma from the Holocaust, did not involve any filmmakers or main actors who are known to be Jewish. The question is, of course, how much that really matters.
I am an Italian American Jew-by-choice who grew up with a photograph of Loren taped to my bedroom mirror and spent my free time watching Houseboat. When my brother messaged me about the film, he was shocked I hadn’t heard of it: “I was pretty sure you’d written and directed it,” he teased. True Sophia fangirls will know this is not the actress’s first time playing a member of the tribe. In 1966, she starred in Judith as the Jewish ex-wife of a Nazi officer who is rescued by the Haganah to live on a kibbutz. In 1997, she played Maman Levy, the Jewish mother of five children living in Vichy-occupied Algiers, in Soleil. But those films were either directed or produced by Jewish filmmakers.
Even before I became aware of this fact, questions of representation were on my mind as I watched Loren as Madame Rosa: How did she prepare for this role? Had she met with survivors? Read their stories? Were survivors involved in the creative production of the film? Did her son, along with Ugo Chiti, include those voices in their adapted screenplay?
This is, after all, a story initially told by Jews. The Life Ahead is the third screen adaptation of French Jewish writer Romain Gary’s novel of the same name, and was also based on the 1977 film Madame Rosa, directed by Jewish Israeli Moshé Mizrahi and starring Simone Signoret, whose father was Jewish. How would a loss of those voices impact this portrayal? Is it ultimately possible — or appropriate — to portray the experience, and in particular the pain, of a marginalized group of which you are not a member?
On the one hand, having Jewish participants involved in the process would help to ensure that the story is being told from the perspective of the people it affects the most. Not all Jews are experts in Holocaust trauma, but a large proportion grew up with family members who are. On principle, it is important to uplift these voices, both as a means of healing and as a combative against erasure. And perhaps more cynically, inclusion of Jews in the telling of Jewish stories acts as an insurance policy against exploitation of Jewish pain for material gain.
On a more technical note, including an Italian Jewish voice could have been helpful in some key ways: Most people familiar with the Jewish diaspora in Italy know that the history runs deep, but that the Southern region, where the story is filmed and takes place, is basically empty of Jews. Because the film was adapted from a French setting, some context as to how Madame Rosa ended up in Bari, or at the very least an acknowledgement of her experience as one of the very, very few Jews in the area, might have been significant to include.
But despite all of that, the fact is that Loren’s performance is stirring. Her flashbacks to gestapo raids, and her methodical squirreling away in the safe embrace of her basement surrounded by Jewish relics, feel like plausible episodes of engrained trauma. This is in large part because of Loren herself: Her turn-on-a-dime emotional range, and her capacity to vacillate from numbness to piercing pain, may be in part due to her own life experience. No, Loren cannot pull from the inherited stress the children of Holocaust survivors and victims experience. She did not grow up with the stories, the family trees full of holes earned through mass murder, nor does she endure the sting of antisemitism. But Loren can pull from her own pain, loss, inherited suffering, and compassion.
In an interview with CBS News, Loren says, “That’s why I made the film – she [Madame Rosa] reminded me a lot about my mother. My mother was absolutely like that. Inside she was very fragile, but she looked strong.” The daughter of a single, unmarried mother on the outskirts of Naples in a time and place when such a thing was seen as an extreme taboo, Loren grew up struggling on the fringe of society.
And maybe that’s the point of the film. Its three main characters, a Holocaust survivor, a Senegalese orphan, and a Spanish transgender woman seeking acceptance from her family, together share a common quest: to feel okay again.
It is important never to lose sight of the scope and unique evil of the mechanized mass murder of the Holocaust, nor minimize the authority of those who experienced that evil firsthand. But perhaps equally important is to show how the pathos of the Holocaust can be internalized by those who do not have that personal connection to it. How as human beings — and especially as artists — we are able to supersede the material label of tribal belonging, allowing empathy to uncover the spiritual crux of the trauma. That is what art, and art alone, can ideally do.
Even if the film lacks Jewish oversight (and even if it falls into some clichés that have already been aired in several critques of the film), The Life Ahead does succeed as a certain type of 21st century Holocaust film. The parallel stories of three tortured souls, of various ages, religious, cultural, and sexual backgrounds, illustrate that the depth of human frailty is both limitless and timeless, as are our attempts to manage, subdue, and ultimately endure the pain caused by it. Perhaps more than ever, this is the survivor film our fractured and suffering society most needs.