The Life Ahead review – Sophia Loren serves up some grandmother courage

At 86, Sophia Loren returns to the screen for the first time in 10 years in this sentimental tale for Netflix, directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. It’s adapted from the novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary, which was first filmed in 1977 as Madame Rosa with Simone Signoret in the title role.

In truth, the part Loren plays here is not so very different in spirit from the “mother courage” roles which made her a star in the 1960s, only now it’s a matter of grandmother-courage (the scene in which she is heartrendingly stretchered out of her apartment building by medics is a weird echo of the beginning of Vittorio de Sica’s Marriage Italian Style). There’s no doubt about it: Loren still has an imperious address to the camera. I spent much of this film wishing she were allowed to let rip with something more spirited, but it’s a heartfelt performance. Loren has an undiminished screen presence and it’s great to see her with a substantial role.

She plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor who wound up walking the streets of Naples, and now runs an informal creche for the kids of all the other women, including her best friend, played by the Spanish transgender performer Abril Zamora.

Related: Sophia Loren returns to movies aged 86

Then her doctor (Renato Carpentieri), who is also a charity worker and old friend, asks her to take in a troubled Senegalese boy, Momo (played by newcomer Ibrahima Gueye) and instantly the trouble starts. Momo is angry at the world and secretly working for an unscrupulous and exploitative drug dealer, but after a rocky start, he becomes increasingly concerned for his grumpy, but caring new landlady, who is apparently succumbing to dementia and plagued with nightmarish memories of a place Momo thinks she’s calling “Housewitch”. Madame Rosa’s destiny is of course to be a sacrificial one.

Perhaps you need a sweet tooth for this, but it’s good to see Loren in a movie that is worthy of her.

• The Life Ahead is on Netflix from 13 November.