Now Playing! Sophia, Kate and an Unforgettable Octopus Lead the Way

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Ibrahima Gueye and Sofia Loren in 'The Life Ahead.' (Regine 'Greta' De Lazzaris/Netflix)

Movie theaters are open again in San Francisco and beyond, for as long as we are granted this treat in the midst of our public health crisis. On the big screen and home screen, a trio of films with hardy female protagonists command our interest.

The Life Ahead
Now playing
Netflix

In 1978, French actress Simone Signoret won César and Donatello awards for her crusty performance as Madame Rosa, a child survivor of the Holocaust and retired Pigalle prostitute who becomes the tough-love mother to an Algerian Muslim boy. Writer-director Eduardo Ponti, the son of cinema immortals Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, has transposed the 1975 source novel, Romain Gary’s La Vie Devant Soi (published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar), to Italy as a vehicle for his mother. Awards are not forthcoming.

Loren, although she hasn’t graced a screen in a decade, retains every iota of her regal bearing and effortless command. However, she is 30 years older than Signoret was when she played Rosa, which renders Loren somewhat implausible as a hands-on mother and pushes the Holocaust connection so far into the past that it barely registers.

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Her contribution to The Life Ahead is substantial, nonetheless, but ultimately it’s not her film. As the title indicates, the future (and to a large degree the present) belongs to Momo, the ultra-smart street kid and drug peddler played by charismatic scene-stealer Ibrahima Gueye. But Ponti weirdly sanitizes both the allure and danger of a life of crime, inferring that Momo’s potential rejection of the opportunity proffered by Madame Rosa won’t doom him to inevitable tragedy but rather an uneducated, uncultured life of unrealized potential.

While that would be a catastrophe, it lacks a certain cinematic oomph. Instead of a straight shot of a young life in the balance, The Life Ahead serves up a tall glass of feel-good poignancy.

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in 'Ammonite.' (Neon)

Ammonite
Now playing
Embarcadero Center Cinema, Shattuck, Smith Rafael Film Center

In the blustery town of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England in the middle of the 19th century, self-sufficient Mary Anning (the perpetually humorless Kate Winslet) spends her days by the seashore trawling for rocks embedded with remains of long-dead creatures to clean and sell for souvenirs. Mary’s brief, bright career as a pioneering excavator of fossils is a painful memory and her gray existence, with a long-suffering mother, is a kind of living death.

You might think Mary would be gratified that the harsh years of wind and water inexplicably have left her fine complexion as unlined as a Lancôme model’s. But nothing gives her pleasure until Mrs. Roderick Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) turns up in tow of a husband who, in short order, dumps her in Mary’s safekeeping for a month while he sets off on some manly expedition.

Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) doesn’t let a smidgen of tenderness, or color, or music infiltrate his movie for a good half hour, which takes some effort when you cast the throbbing tendril that is Saoirse Roman. Even the armored, invulnerable Mary Anning is not impervious to her Charlotte, which does not surprise us. (Winslet is solid and affecting, as always, but her performance contains no surprises.)

Ammonite, which received its local premiere in last month’s Mill Valley Film Festival, is not, as you might expect, a rumination on a secret love constrained by societal mores, pressures and prejudices. Mary could give a fig what others think; her hurdle to happiness is the fear that love leads to comfort and then to—horrors—dependence. This theme, rather than Lee’s handheld camerawork, gives the film its core of modernity.

Ammonite lacks the verve and wit of Shirley and Kajillionaire, two films this year that likewise pursued an unlikely friendship (and more) between women of disparate backgrounds. More than those worthy works, though, it benefits from the big screen, which wraps us along with the characters in the natural world. But when Saoirse Ronan leaves the film to return to her husband and London, you’ll feel the gloom descend that much more acutely.

The titular creature in 'My Octopus Teacher.' (Netflix)

My Octopus Teacher
Streaming now
Netflix

“Life in the oceans must be sheer hell,” Werner Herzog mused in the 12th and final tenet of his typically iconoclastic Minnesota Declaration of 1999. “A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”

If you have yet to watch the wondrously constructed word-of-mouth Netflix hit from South Africa, My Octopus Teacher, I am delighted to “inform” your viewing with Herzog’s unsentimental view of nature (and nature documentaries, presumably). Yes, I’m being a bit of a spoilsport, but only because I have no doubt that filmmakers Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s skill, craft and artistry will exert their intended spell.

If you haven’t heard, My Octopus Teacher limns the cold-water relationship between disenchanted filmmaker Craig Foster and the young mollusk he encounters and then is inspired to visit, befriend and film over the course of approximately a year. The most fascinating character, by far, is the octopus, who repeatedly displays phenomenal intelligence and resourcefulness. Foster narrates the film by necessity, but his experience is frankly less compelling than hers.

You may find this paragraph, from a “making of” article written by associate producer Swati Thiyagarajan (who is also Foster’s wife, I believe), as hilarious as I do: “A year into the edit, Craig Foster was excited to get in touch with Prof. Jennifer Mather, an ‘octopus psychologist’ at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. There are no octopus behavior experts in South Africa and Craig and Pippa Ehrlich needed to get into the mind of the octopus if they were going to tell her story authentically. In early 2018, Dr. Mather flew to Cape Town and joined them in the edit for some rigorous scientific consulting.”

Scientific rigor and character development aside, I defy you not to be moved by My Octopus Teacher. Even if you wag a finger when it anthropomorphizes or, yes, sentimentalizes its heroine. See, it could be far, far worse: I imagine that Pixar is already developing an animated version of the story—without the inevitable real-world ending.

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