Directed by: Moshé Mizrahi
Distributor: Warner-Columbia Film
Released: November 1977
Simone Signoret was the first French person to ever get an Academy Award, winning Best Actress for her role in 1959’s tragic drama Room at the Top, beating out Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Katherine Hepburn. I had never heard of her. Signoret had a penchant for playing prostitutes and mistresses in her younger days, and she and her husband Yves Montand (who has a small but important role in 1969’s Best Foreign Film Z) are considered two of France’s great film stars.
|Momo and Rosa|
Madame Rosa came almost 20 years after her Oscar, and while she had aged and gained weight, the title role in this film required her do ramp it up a bit with some extra milkshakes and French fries. It’s method acting at its extreme, most famously done by Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, when he added 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta. But Signoret’s commitment to the physical requirements of the role is only indicative of how committed she was to the emotional aspects of playing the part. She is not an attractive character to watch, either in a physical sense nor as a person, but when all is said and done, Signoret is what makes this a film worth watching.
|Simone Signoret in her Oscar role, with Lawrence Harvey|
The character Madame Rosa is not really a madam for prostitutes, per se, but she once was in the biz. She’s retired and now spends her time raising the children of other prostitutes. Rosa was a Holocaust survivor, having once lived in Auschwitz, and you can tell she is as tough as they come. She is raising a bunch of kids the mothers can’t take care of themselves, and treats them all as if they were hers.
The main relationship in the movie is between Rosa and Momo, a 10-year-old Muslim kid, and the oldest of the bunch. Though Rosa is Jewish, she feels the responsibility to raise Momo in his own faith, though she openly gives her opinions on that faith. Rosa becomes older and sicker as time goes on, while Momo matures into a fine young man.
The film is gritty, both visually and emotionally, as Rosa struggles through her life. She loves the
kids, but is beginning to lose her ability to function because of her
health, both physically and mentally--in fact, she is afraid of being arrested and being
sent back to Auschwitz. Because of her frailties and her descent into dementia,
roles reverse and it is Momo who gradually becomes the caretaker. This is a film about
transcending cultural differences of religion and ethnicity. Rosa and Momo love each other in a time their
peoples hate each other so much.
|Thin Raging Bull|
Israeli Director Moshé Mizrahi, who would go on to direct Tom Hanks in one of his earliest films, 1986’s Every Time We Say Goodbye, does a fine job. The framing of Rosa’s sixth-floor apartment evinces claustrophobia for the viewer and the washed-out look of the film emphasizes the difficulty of the environment for Rosa and for the kids. But it is Signoret’s acting that shines in this film. Her every move feels like a burden, most underscored by her having to climb that six flights to her apartment. Every word she utters seems like a chore and she makes you wish her life could have been easier somehow. Whatever her acting method, the milkshakes and extra fries paid off.
|Fat Raging Bull|
You can watch the file on YouTube here.
The Title: French title was La vie devant soi, which correlates to the 1975 Romain Gary novel on which the film is based, The Life Before Us.
The Culture: This one examines the long term effects of the Holocaust in post-war Europe, and deals with some heavy themes like Jewish-Arab relations.
Agenda danger: It’s not heavy-handed, but of course there is a bit of the “can’t we all just get along?” thing going here.
Best Picture that year: Annie Hall
Rating: This isn’t for everyone. But as a character study it’s interesting, and the relationship between Rosa and Momo is moving. A nice, quiet film worth watching for the relationships and for the acting.