La Vie Devant Soi
Dir. Moshe Mizrahi
Premiered November 2, 1977
Paris as we know it is not very old. Beginning in the 1860s, the city was demolished piece by piece and rebuilt bigger, cleaner, and easier to get around, this was the beginning of the wide avenues, circles, and monuments we know today. But it was never finished. Go to the Marais, just north of the Île Saint-Louis, and suddenly you are not only in a version of Paris that has disappeared, but an entire way of life in Europe. Preserved in this one corner of the continent is a perfect image of the Old Country; the close cobblestone streets, bars, bookstores, and bakeries of the Jewish ghetto; here alone lives the world of ancient photographs and tragicomic Yiddish tales of life before the Holocaust. Madame Rosa doesn’t take place in the Marais, it takes place in Belleville, and it is set in the 1970s, just as it was filmed, but it is very much in the spirit of such tales.
Belleville in the 1970s was a hub for immigrants, mostly from North Africa, mostly Jews. But it is also near Pigalle, the red light district, and it is this unusual location that makes this story, based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us, so fascinating. The titular Madame (Simone Signoret) is a deeply traumatized Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who has made a habit of taking in the abandoned children of her younger colleagues. As a result, this is not so much her story as that of her eldest charge Mohammed (Sami Ben-Youb). With Rosa dying, her other children being sent off, Mohammed is the last person to truly care for her, an incredible burden on the boy as he wonders about his parentage, seeks guidance from an increasingly senile and blind imam (Gabriel Jabbour), and contemplates his nascent adolescence with a beautiful young film editor (Michal Bat-Adam).
Madame Rosa is deeply imperfect. It meanders frustratingly through its first half, and the editing always seems a bit off– in an at least refreshing contrast to badly edited movies from this year, scenes end slightly sooner than they should– but it is a touching and also somewhat disturbing story, anchored by Signoret’s performance and the odd characters around Rosa and Mohammed.
How Did It Do?
Madame Rosa grossed $5.2 million in the United States and around $4 million in France, depending on how much tickets cost there. The film also benefitted greatly from the timing of its release, coinciding as it did with President Carter’s sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. With a RottenTomatoes score of 83%, many critics openly gave Madame Rosa a pass for its questionably loose narrative and editing in favor of endorsing both its story and production as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.
Madame Rosa was the last film released to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. By my estimation it shouldn’t have, but there are a couple of reasons why it might have won. The first is political: Molly Haskell of New York Magazine strongly suspected that the award had been given thereto as a compromise for giving Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in light of her…contemporary efforts (That thing keeps coming back, though Madame Rosa’s Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, actually agreed with Redgrave). The second is that, while the award probably should’ve gone to A Special Day, the Academy, reflecting Old Hollywood’s longstanding paranoia about scaring away Midwestern Goyim, were spooked by that movie’s unapologetic gay themes, though the notoriously homophobic country of Italy interestingly had no problem submitting it. But I digress.
Next Time: Pete’s Dragon