One of the movies I missed in 2020.

Director Edoard Ponti, in making The Life Ahead, a new adaptation of Romain Gary's 1975 novel La vie devant soi (which has been published in English as both Momo and The Life Before Us), did as many filmmakers have over the years, and cast a family member in a major role. In fact, one might go so far as to suggest that The Life Ahead was built around nothing other than showing off that family member. Fortunately for all of us, not least of all Ponti, he's Sophia Loren's son (his dad was the late super-producer Carlo Ponti), and she's the family member in question, and The Life Ahead is basically an advertisement for the fact that, at the age of 86 and a fully ten years after she last appeared in front of cameras (in the 2010 Italian telefilm My House Is Full of Mirrors; her last theatrical feature was a year before that, a small role in 2009's instantly-forgotten musical Nine), Mom still has it.

And by it, I mean It. That one-of-a-kind movie-star Clara-Bow-style It. And although when  Loren was at the peak of her career in the late 1950s and early '60s, she was broadly regarded as one of the most beautiful woman in the whole world, It isn't sex appeal. It's that thing that all movie stars have that makes them different from and better than the rest of us, and Loren was nothing if not one of the pre-eminent movie stars of her generation. A good actress too, and her performance in The Life Ahead is very strong, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that once-a-generation ability to stride in front of a camera and simply demand its attention, and the attention of the audience. Call it charisma, call it whatever: Loren captivates out attention simply by sitting and doing literally nothing at all, maybe just looking with a slightly grim expression at one of the other characters. The movie entirely defines itself around her presence. She controls it - not because she wants to, simply because it has no choice, we have choice. To see Loren onscreen is to be captivated by her.

I apologise for going on like this about vagaries, but the thing is, prior to watching The Life Ahead, which is an extraordinarily undistinguished movie in every other imaginable way than giving Loren a new role, twenty years into the 21st Century, I don't know when I last saw a new movie with a movie star. And I fear I had forgotten what it was like to see one of them walking amongst us. This is every bit a contemporary movie, made for a streaming platform (Netflix is the worldwide distributor), with the cruddy-looking digital cinematography and even cruddier digital color grading that have come to define "made for a streaming platform" in my brain,  and I know I am not alone in this. It's one thing to encounter a real honest-to-God movie star in the kind of movie made for a movie star, 80 years old and in black and white and on proudly artificial Hollywood sets. It's just a different thing altogether to have that encounter now, and to be forced to reckon with the complete absence of anybody with that kind of remarkable onscreen authority, who simply by being awake in front of the camera transforms a movie into Cinema.

It's good for The Life Ahead  that Loren is in the cast, offering up all of this old-school movie star energy, because it has absolutely nothing else. It barely even has a story. Loren plays Madame Rosa (the title of the most prominent of two earlier adaptations, from 1977), a cantankerous Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who, in her old age, has taken to offer her services as babysitter for the children of other women living in her run-down building in the port town of Bari. She crosses paths one day with Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a 12-year-old orphan immigrant from Senegal who steals her purse; his legal guardian, Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) is an old friend of Rosa, and he convinces her to watch the boy, for a fee. Over the course of the film's trim 94 minutes, these two prickly figures will soften each other, and form a kind of loose, ad hoc family, no less emotionally meaningful for being non-traditional. And as Rosa starts to grow sicker, Momo ends up having to care for her like she cared for him.

This is not, to put it bluntly, surprising or fresh. Everything about the film is a straight-down-the-line melodrama of the most standard possible kind, hitting exactly the emotions you expect in exactly the order you expect. In such a situation, the film lives or dies entirely on the execution, and The Life Ahead is a mixed bag as far as that goes. On the positive side, it does have Loren, whose performance as Rosa is absolutely splendid; her irritable glances and the slow way she allows her entire body to slowly relax over the course of the movie make the character recognisably human without unnecessarily pleading for our sympathy, or even putting herself out there as especially likable. She's an old woman, tired and reflective, and the film and Loren both make very certain to avoid having any golden-hued nostalgia as she looks backwards on her life. And she's got a great co-star in the form of Gueye, a tremendously natural screen presence in his own right, whose performance of Momo strikes exactly the right balance of precocious cynicism without being so worldly that we cease to relate to him as a lost kid in an alien land. Gueye manages the tricky work of making it clear when Momo is holding back from the world around him versus being confused and wary, making for a character grounded enough to keep the film feeling solid even when it's drifting into banal sentiment.

And that, in turn, brings us to the negative side. This is, simply put, an extremely sticky, sentimental movie, especially in its honey-colored, obnoxiously warm cinematography, which drowns the movie in heavy-handed nostalgia. If Loren is doing everything in her power to make Rosa a person and not just a generic idea of a sad old lady with a tragic past, the rest of the film is certainly not assisting her in any way; especially the deeper it gets into the story, and she gets sicker while growing more sweet-natured towards Momo. Ponti, as director, is simply not very good at avoiding the worst pitfalls of the scenario, or indeed at doing anything other than casting his mother; he tips The Life Ahead into exactly the gooey greeting-card sentimentality that would be the likeliest fate for this scenario, and leaves an already-indistinct scenario feeling more anonymous still. It would be unfair to say that the movie is especially "bad", but it's painfully unexceptional and undistinguished, outside of Loren's monumental presence, and that's every bit as bad.