by Mirha-Soleil Ross
Madame Rosa is a 1977 French film adaption of the novel La Vie devant soi, written by Romain Gary under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar. Through his double identity, Gary, who had already received the Prix Goncourt in 1956 for Les Racines du ciel, received it again, in 1975 for La Vie devant soi, becoming the first writer to be twice attributed the highly coveted award. The film adaptation was directed by Moshé Mizrahi and produced by Daniel Pomerantz. It stars Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa, a frail, aging, retired Jewish prostitute and Auschwitz survivor who earns a meager living by caring for the children of younger sex working women, as well as Sami Ben Youb as Momo (short for Mohammed), a young Arab boy on the verge of adolescence. Momo hasn’t seen his parents in years. Him and Madame Rosa struggle to make ends meet, and as her body and mind start to fail, it becomes clear that Momo is the only person she has left in the world. Despite his young age, he has to help Madame Rosa who refuses to be hospitalized. He will stay with her as she faces her ultimate fears, prepares for her last and most difficult voyage. The story of Madame Rosa and Momo unfolds in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural community. The profound emotional bond between the two main characters, one an old Jewish woman and the other a young Arab boy, is what drives the film emotionally from the beginning to the end. The film also emphasizes the compassion and empathy that can be found in such a disadvantaged community context through the helping gestures of the secondary characters. Madame Lola, for example, while being bluntly described by Momo as “a transvestite” who had been “a boxing champion in Senegal”, is depicted in both the book and the film without any sensationalism. To the contrary, she is presented as a compassionate human being who is concerned by the poverty of Madame Rosa and Momo, giving them food and money without expecting anything in return. Momo says of her that “she’s really somebody”, that he “likes her”; Madame Rosa declares, “She’s a Saint, I don’t know where we’d be without her”. The dynamic represented between Madame Rosa, Momo and their transsexual prostitute neighbor, Madame Lola, stands as a good example of the type of deeply humanistic values and respect for human difference, whether that difference is of a sexual, religious, or racial nature, that is embedded in Romain Gary’s written text and further successfully emphasized through Moshé Mizrahi’s cinematographic representation of the story. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1977. The book has been translated in English, but the same translation has been published under two different titles: The Life Before Us and Momo.