• Golden Globe Awards

The Life Ahead (Italy): In Conversation with Director Edoardo Ponti

Edoardo Ponti once again directs his mother – none other than Sophia Loren – in the Netflix feature film The Life Ahead, based on French novelist Romain Gary’s novel, and adapted for the screen by Ponti with Italian screenwriter Ugo Chiti. Set in present-day Bari, Italy, the movie tells the story of Madame Rosa (Loren), a tough-as-nails lady who takes in young refugees from Africa as foster children. Momo (played by Ibrahima Gueye) is one of them, particularly lively and a bit of a rascal. The boy puts Rosa’s patience to test over and over again, and yet little by little, a strong, deep relationship emerges which will eventually bond the two of them forever. Loren and her son Edoardo love to work together: The Life Ahead represents their third collaboration, following Between Strangers (2002), and the 2014 short The Human Voice, based on Jean Cocteau’s piece. “I always loved Gary’s novel, which was told from a child’s point of view,” says Ponti, 47, from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives. “It’s still a very topical story, worth telling in today’s world, where too often we see people treating immigrants and refugees as second-class citizens.”
Can you tell us how this film came to you, and then from you to your Mom?
I always loved Romain Gary’s book. I had two books on my nightstand that I always knew that one day I would turn into a film: the first was The Human Voice, which I made with my mother four years ago, and then there was this one, The Life Ahead. What really attracted me to this project was first of all the story of the friendship between these two people, the old lady and the kid, who are the unlikeliest pair in literature, different in age, culture, religion, everything. But at the same time, they are just two opposite sides of the same coin. So, the coming together of these two people, who are apparently opposites but yet are so similar – they were both raised on the streets, scarred by suffering and defined by both pain and hope – was something that very much touched me. And, as I was saying, I loved the fact that the novelist writes the story through the point of view of this young immigrant child. The underlying empathy he had for the boy was something that very much inspired me. 
What about your mother’s involvement in this project? How were you able to convince her?
About four years ago, when I felt it was the right time for me to do it, I suggested this film to Mom. Of course, she knew Gary’s book very well, and she loved the character of Madame Rosa, a seminal character in world literature. We both jumped at the opportunity of telling that story – and of working together again, because we love working together. So, it was really kind of a win-win in that way, a great book, a great role and another great experience together. The film was intended for theatrical distribution, of course, in the pre-Covid days. Now it’s one of those Netflix originals that started in the theaters and then got taken up by the streaming platform. It opened worldwide in 190 countries, and it was very well received everywhere!
Let’s talk more about directing your Mom. What was the challenge this time?
The heart of the novel and the film is the relationship of love and friendship between Madame Rosa and Momo. So, everything had to come from that creative terrain, and in the dialogue in the scenes, I was hearing my mother’s voice breathing life into Madame Rosa’s character, but what I heard even more than my mother’s voice was the voice of my grandmother, who was a tough cookie! My mother feels very strongly this connection between Madame Rosa and her own mother. My grandmother was tough, she was irreverent, she was very funny, and she was also very vulnerable, very fragile and very artistic – she was a piano player. But she had suffered a great deal. You could feel the fact that this was a woman who didn’t have an easy life. She was a survivor – a fighter, a warrior – and at the same time, she was quite delicate and humorous. So, all these different opposing colors and energies were crowding my mind and my ears. When my mother read it, she felt that same connection. Madame Rosa is very much my grandmother.  
Why do you think this movie is relevant today? 
It’s relevant and important because the world is filled with different people, and the differences should be celebrated, not demonized, people should be seen and heard for who they are, for what they truly are inside. If you make a movie that at least plants that seed, then you have the beginning of empathy, you have the beginning of connection, you have the beginning of allowing yourself to be open to things that up to this point you weren’t open to.
Of course, you are a little biased, but…  how great of an actress is your Mom? 
My mother is more than a great actress, she is a great artist. She’s now 86, and when you are 86 years old and you have the sort of career Sophia Loren has had, you can stop, because you can rest on the laurels of your legacy, of everything that you have done. But when you are an artist, you can’t stop, because there’s that desire to create that keeps you up at night, that makes you wake up in the morning, wanting to walk into something, wanting to challenge yourself, wanting to push the envelope and to broaden your creative challenges. And what I love about her is that at her age she risked everything to play a role – in this film – that was extremely challenging. I can only hope that at 86 I will have the same drive and courage.