Substance Over Form

Madame Rosa directed by Moshe Mizrahi at the Orson Welles

HE IS OLD, so is she. They live in the same building yet you see them pass each other on the stairs without talking. Time goes by and he looks older and frailer while she, despite her bulk, decays faster until one day she faints climbing the stairs. This stirs him; he visits, brings flowers and introduces himself. She offers him candy which he won't eat, doctor's orders. But in the end she wins; he dies first, which is fitting.

It is fitting that the former railroad administrator dies before the former whore. He is too preoccupied with sacrificing a good, full life for health and a little more time to actually be able to outlast Madame Rosa-she has lived the good, full life too long to be able to continue at the same pace forever.

Madame Rosa's death is what half the plot of Madame Rosa, this year's Oscar winner as Best Foreign Film, is about. The other half is about a boy, Momo's, maturation. But there is more to the movie than just the relationship between a dying woman and the growing boy she raises, just as there is more to their relationship than just a difference in age.

Madame Rosa is a former whore; Momo is the son of a different whore. Mme. Rosa is a Jew; she raises Momo as a Moslem. She was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz; he was abandoned by his parents at age three. She is haunted by past persecution; he is tortured because he can't be sure of his ancestry.

Momo is not the only child Madame Rosa has charge of--she makes her living, since she gave up prostitution and wetnursing, taking care of prostitutes' children. Most of the mothers visit their offspring, but a few of the young no longer have parents willing to support them, let alone visit. Momo is one of those few.


He is a physically beautiful, emotionally sensitive boy who has an insatiable need for love, yet suppresses and tries to hide his desire. Madame Rosa does not hide her sensuality as well; she demands special behavior from Momo, and the more he complies the more obvious her special attention to Momo at the expense of the other children becomes. As he grows older not only does he become more convinced that what his Moslem mentor Monsieur Hasil says is true--to live you have to love something or someone--and he begins to focus that love on Madame Rosa.

Time is not in his favor. As he grows and learns to love and depend on Madame Rosa, she grows older too. And her age does more than increase her love, it also saps her strength and undermines her health. Her weakness makes her still more dependent on Momo, which further heightens his love for her. At the same time it forces him to realize that someday soon she will die and there will be no one left who needs him or whom he will want to need, in turn.

That vacuum is partially filled by Madame Nadine, a film editor who walks up to Momo in a Paris park, tells him he is the most beautiful child in Paris and asks him to talk to her. He does until she says something disturbing at which point he leaves--only to return to her months later when his father, newly released from a psychiatric hospital, dies on Madame Rosa's floor.

MOMO'S FATHER killed his mother out of jealousy; he was deemed insane and locked away. On his release he seeks his son. Madame Rosa, trying to protect Momo both for his sake and, selfishly, for hers, tricks the man into believing she had mistakenly raised his son as an Orthodox Jew upon which he violently protests, convulses and dies.

His death is the turning point in the movie. Not only does Momo realize Madame Rosa knew who his parents were all along but he has to witness the ugly scene of his father's death. He hardens--perhaps because Madame Rosa's credibility has been shaken, perhaps because he discovers his father was less than a nobody. At any rate, he reaches into the dead man's pocket, out of Madame Rosa's sight, finds a cigarette and begins to smoke. He smokes again at Madame Nadine's when he is talking into her friend's tape-recorder reciting his life and thoughts. Smoking symbolizes the beginning of his independence from Madame Rosa as does his voluntary return to Madame Nadine.

The third time he returns to her is permanent, in terms of the movie, after Madame Rosa's death. He and the dying woman lock themselves up in a wine cellar she had converted into her "Jewish hideaway" so she could die there rather than in a hospital; she does. Momo doesn't eat and leaves only once during the three weeks he stays with the body. Firemen break through the cellar door and discover both the body and Momo. They also find Madame Nadine's number in his pocket and call her.

Madame Nadine is as different from Madame Rosa as Momo is, or so she seems. On the exterior Madame Rosa is not excessively warm though she is certainly attached to Momo. Nor is Momo particularly emotional, either. Rather, their appearances reflect little while Madame Nadine, on the other hand, is nothing but appearances. She acts overly concerned, but it is only an act. Like her children who send Momo fleeing by calling him an Arab she is no more than fascinated by what he is. She listens to his story, and records it, but when he runs out of the house she makes no attempt to stop him, or help him.

Thus, Madame Nadine is superficial from the start. Viewed from one angle, it makes the movie hard to believe. Who would walk up to a poorly-dressed Arab boy, touch his cheek and ask him why he is crying? Who would tape his heart-rending tale and then let him get up and run away? It isn't plausible, especially if Madame Nadine is supposed to care for Momo as much as she seems to. But, that's just the point. Not only is she using him for her own pleasure, to look at, and for her own uses, to tape, but the very fact that she does so only emphasizes and underlines and contrasts the sincerity of Madame Rosa's love.

Even though there are differences between Momo and Madame Rosa they are as superficial as Madame Nadine's love for the boy. What they boil down to is a glue that binds. Both the woman and the boy are members of persecuted minorities, alone, haunted by their pasts and trapped as much by wanting to stay in their surroundings as by their material inability to escape. It is irrelevant, as far as their relationship goes, that, for instance, one is Jewish and the other Arab. Because it is, director Moshe Mizrahi makes the point that appearances really are no more than superficial. It is only the substance that counts and the substance, that is, the mutual giving and needing, that flows between Momo and Madame Rosa.

There are other examples of appearances fooling us. The best is Madame Lola, a lean black prostitute who ends up supporting Madame Rosa and Momo when her fellow prostitutes no longer send their children to the old woman. She is genuinely kind and genuinely cares, which belies her appearance as a prostitute. But that isn't all. In Momo's first taping he reveals that Madame Lola is really a former male fighter who has had hormone injections and now "peddles her ass." It is a revelation that comes as a complete surprise which means, even more, that whether she is a prostitute or prize-fighter is irrelevant in judging her as a human. She is good and kind. That is all that matters. This is Madame Rosa's central theme.

IT IS CARRIED to near perfection by Simone Signoret's brilliant rendition of Madame Rosa and Samy Ben Youn's impressive performance as Momo. The only flaws, which are minor, lie in the set and the atmosphere portrayed, not in the acting. For instance, Madame Rosa's children are too healthy and happy and the prostitutes who visit them are too well-dressed and well-mannered to be streetwalkers in one of Paris's poorest sections. But these are no more than faults in appearance. And since the point of the movie is that appearance overlies but doesn't represent substance the flaws don't count for much as long as the substance beneath is solid. Which it is, in this case, like gold.

So the old man's death makes sense. Although he lives, he isn't alive while Madame Rosa isn't just alive, she lives; he has the appearance of life while she has the substance. And the substance, Madame Rosa, wins out.