6 February 2014 | Bunuel1976
MADAME ROSA (Moshe' Mizrahi, 1977) ***
Knowing that MADAME ROSA had triumphed at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category when in direct competition with Luis Bunuel's superb swan song THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE had always made me want to check it out. As had been the case the previous year with BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR and COUSIN, COUSINE, two movies shot in French found themselves among the final five nominees for the same award since, in this case, OBJECT was submitted as Spain's official entry for consideration!; for the record, the other nominees that year were A SPECIAL DAY (Italy), IPHIGENIA (Greece) and OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (Israel; which I will be catching up with presently given my ongoing Oscar-themed marathon).
As far as I am aware, there had only been a solitary Italian TV screening of MADAME ROSA over the years but no home video release in my neck of the woods; eventually I came across it by chance fairly recently via a hazy 'full movie' video on "You Tube" – presumably culled from a Hen's Tooth NTSC VHS – which occasionally also suffers from white subtitles against a white background but, thanks to my grasp of the French language, that liability did not pose too much of a problem. Egyptian-born Israeli director Mizrahi had previously been among the Oscar nominees for both I LOVE YOU, ROSA (1972) and THE HOUSE ON CHELOUCHE STREET (1973) where it had deservedly lost out to another Bunuel effort, namely THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, and Francois Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT respectively; while the film under review remains his best-known work, he has at least three other entries of interest in his filmography: I SENT A LETTER TO MY LOVE (1980; with Simone Signoret, Jean Rochefort and Delphine Seyrig), LA VIE CONTINUE (1981; with Annie Girardot and Jean-Pierre Cassel) and EVERY TIME WE SAY GOODBYE (1986; with Tom Hanks and Christina Marsillach) – only the first of these, however, is available to me at this point.
Although the film's original French title literally translates to "The Life Ahead Of Him" and applies to the character of a troubled Arab teenager named Mohammed but affectionately known as Momo' (a quietly impressive Samy Ben-Youb – who, at one point, callously sells off an amiable mutt he had just acquired for 500 francs
which he then proceeds to throw down the sewer through a street grating!), it is understandable that internationally it was retitled as MADAME ROSA since Simone Signoret's moving central characterization of an overweight, moribund former Jewess prostitute-turned-"wet nurse" to the brood of whores dominates the entire movie; interestingly enough, she had already portrayed a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold in Luis Bunuel's DEATH IN THE GARDEN (1956). While at the very start of the film (adapted from Romain Gary's novel) Madame Rosa is shown caring for a dozen kids spawned by working streetwalkers, by the end of it only two remain – the others having been in the meantime 'adopted' by families of their respective nationality and creed that have likewise emigrated to the Parisian 'red light' district of Pigalle. Indeed, one of the film's highlights is when Momo''s mentally defective and wife- murdering Muslim father turns up on Madame Rosa's doorstep after 11 years to claim him but she – in front of the boy's very own eyes – tries to pass off her other Jewish charge Moishe' as his son; obviously, the broken man is horrified on learning that his Muslim offspring had been raised as a Jew, infuriatingly charges out of the room and expires at the foot of the steps from a heart attack!
Rosa herself – who is periodically afflicted by strokes (among other debilitating ailments) and is constantly being visited by a sympathetic medic (a fine Claude Dauphin) and doted upon by a friendly negro boxer- turned-transsexual prostitute(!) dubbed Madame Lola – does not want to be left alone or moved to a hospital and convinces Momo' to let her die peacefully in her underground Jewish hideout. When she expires, he pretties her up with make-up and remains locked up in there with her corpse for a three weeks, until the deathly smell alerts the neighbours to the tragic event. Momo' – who throughout the film was being schooled by a Muslim scholar fond of reading Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" aloud to him (who eventually goes blind) – goes to live with an attractive female film editor (Mizrahi's own wife Michal Bat-Adam) whom he had befriended at a street corner puppet show; curiously enough, her live-in reporter companion, who also interviews Momo' on his life experiences at one point, is played by Greek film director Costa-Gavras! Ultimately, having now watched MADAME ROSA, while definitely not superior to THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, it is certainly better than Leonard Maltin's **1/2 rating and nowhere near as miserable a viewing experience as the plot outline above would suggest.