"These stairs will kill me yet," laments an obese, scowling, aging Simone Signoret as she trudges up several flights in the opening sequence of "Madame Rosa," now at the Outer Circle 1. The movie itself trudges, a worthy but mercilessly prosaic tribute to foster-mother love, the nobility of the human spirit and other exemplary qualities too numerous and platitudinous to mention.
A mildly surprising Oscar winner as the best foreign language film of 1977, "Madame Rosa" might have been commissioned to sweep every award for humanitarianism, brotherhood and ecumenism in the moviegoing world. It's the sort of decent movie whose decency curdles on you.Films this virtuous are as satisfying as friends with flawless characters. You're constantly reminded that you aren't really good enough for them.
Derived from a best-selling French novel, the film was directed by an Israeli, Moshe Mizrahi, who was raised in Egypt until his teens and now divides his time between Paris and Tel Aviv. Signoret plays a former prostitute and Auschwitz inmate in her declining years who cares for the illegitimate children of young prostitutes. She lives in a teeming quarter of Paris apparently dominated by Middle Eastern immigrants, and her brood incorporates many racial, ethnic and religious groups.
The film concentrates on the emotional bond between Madame Rosa and her eldest charge, a restless adolescent of Algerian parentage named Momo. Mizrahi's depiction will touch many people, but it failed to provoke sentimental vibrations in me. The film's life-affirming intentions take a rather dreary, monotonous form. Mizrahi's good will isn't animated by moral passion or complexity. This movie always seems to be murmuring homely wisdom while rocking back and forth.
Here are two characteristic utterances from Madame Rosa: "My, my, life could be so beautiful, but how can you live when you're just trying to survive?" and "In my house there is no such thing as a Jewish state or an Arab state!" I was more intrigued when Costa Gavras, in a bit role that appears to stand in for Mizrahi himself, assured Samy Ben Youb, the boy cast as Momo, that "being raised by a whore isn't so bad, because you can choose the father you want." That's a thought that took me by surprise.
Signoret is not aging very enjoyably, and unlike Shelley Winters, she hasn't sustained her zest while accumulating excess weight. It's difficult to relish her in a character part as listless and mournful as Madame Rosa. Younger moviegoers seeing her for the first time would probably have no conception of how lushly beautiful she was 30 years ago in "Casque d'Or" or how splendidly she embodied ripe, experienced, straight-from-the-shoulder feminity 20 years ago in "Room at the Top."
One is meant to feel inspired by her presence in the role of a survivor, but somehow "Madame Rosa" rubs me the wrong way. Losing heart seems more justifiable than taking heart.