When surveying foreign films of the past, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using major awards as a guidepost, as if recognition from American critics and industry professionals automatically separates extraordinary international movies from mediocre ones. Among the many reasons why that methodology doesn’t always work is that some films get elevated because of timing. Consider Madame Rosa, the offbeat French picture that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1977. Seen today, it’s disjointed, grim, and a bit tedious, bouncing from awkward comedy to mawkish sentimentality to overt political messaging, all within the parameters of a story about death and orphans and racism and whores. There’s a lot of edifying stuff here, but neither the story nor the storytelling feels organic. One gets the sense of writer-director Moshé Mizrahi striving to make a statement through his characters rather than exploring characters and discovering a theme within their fictional experiences.
So why did Madame Rosa earn such impressive accolades? One explanation is nostalgia, since the picture contains an important latter-day performance by French actress Simone Signoret, whose 1950s triumphs include winning an Oscar as Best Actress for the English-language movie Room at the Top (1959). As suggested earlier, however, the more likely explanation has to do with timing. Madame Rosa tells the story of an Arab and a Jew forming a surrogate family together, and it was released during a moment when the world’s attention was focused on Arab-Israeli relations, following the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the heroic rescue of Israeli hostages from Arab terrorists at a Ugandan airport in 1976. Even though Madame Rosa is quite dark, the light of hope burning at the movie’s center obviously resonated with Hollywood tastemakers in 1977.
Viewed outside its original context, the film’s intentions seem as noble as ever, but the shortcomings become more evident.
Signoret plays Madame Rosa, an Auschwitz survivor and retired prostitute who now makes her living caring for the unwanted children of other prostitutes, who send money to pay for the kids’ upkeep. Aging, ill, and overweight, Madame Rosa lives in a walk-up apartment, her infirmities diminishing her ability to function as a housekeeper. More and more, she relies on her favorite houseguest, a young Algerian boy named Momo (Samy Ben Youb). As the film progresses, he segues into the caretaker role while also confronting aspects of his identity. Mizrahi takes the narrative to some unexpected places, and his scene work is never less than intelligent and sensitive, but he loses control over the movie’s tone on several occasions. The simplest scenes, between Madame Rosa and Momo, are about human connection intersecting with deception and dementia. Scenes depicting Momo’s adventures in the world are less disciplined. He forms bonds with animals and people, then willfully destroys those bonds, suggesting he’s immature and self-loathing, and yet he also engages in heady philosophical debates, suggesting he’s precocious and self-confident. So by the time Mizrahi reaches the story’s morbid final moments, we’re left somewhat perplexed about Momo’s true nature, resulting in dissonance with the unambiguous nature of Madame Rosa’s characterization.
Although Madame Rosa is not for everyone, some exceedingly patient and tolerant viewers may still respond to the picture’s odd emotionality.
Madame Rosa: FUNKY