Existential Pedagogy of Mortality and Spiritual Independence

The meeting of these three human beings made the film possible in its final – palpable form – Simone Signoret , Moshe Mizrahi and Samy Ben Youb who is photographed here between Signoret and Mizrahi as if between his mother and father. Still, Samy is separated from the adults into his own particular destiny, exactly like Momo in the film.

Mme Rosa is a beneficiary of the kindness of her neighbors who have decided to celebrate her birthday in nature.

This semantically rich poster of “Madame Rosa” (with its French title “The Life in Front of You”) emphasizes that relationship between Mme Rosa and Momo, the orphan she is looking after for years, is so special in its humility of being like the two small figures (we see in the lower right corner of the poster – just walking together through life), and at the same time it is so absolute and so incredible that it is larger than the Parisian landscapes, than Eiffel Tower, than the tourist sights in the legendary city.

The point of this shot is the gaze of love between two people separated by the approaching death of one and the unknown future of the other. Relationship between them (existentially spiritual togetherness) makes Momo an adult at thirteen, and the ailing and old woman youthful (open to the unknown) before death.

Mme Rosa is among the children under her care. Pay attention to the paintings on the wall – without encouraging kids’ peaceful creativity there is no future for the world.

We see Mme Rosa located in the center of international triangle – between Momo (an Arabic boy) – behind her, trying to make a dummy, a Jewish boy right in front of her, and Mr. Amadei, in whose name she is writing a letter to his relatives in a far away land about his “successes in France”. That’s what Western Democracies, the director suggests by the very composition of the shot, should be doing in this volatile Middle Eastern region – try to make Jews, Arabs, Africans and Europeans members of the same household.

After one of her hypertonic “seizures”, Mme Rosa is helped down, toward the ambulance, while Momo is worried and feels abandoned again, as he was by his parents.

Here is Mme Rosa, generous and patient with children in her care. The mirror reflects her back (as if she is already leaving us), and on its margin we see a small photo of young Simone Signoret whom we remember in so many films (Mme Rosa’s past) – the only real mirror left to her.

Is Mme Rosa contemplating her death or is she feeling swallowed up by her deadly memories in Auschwitz? Will she be able to separate the two (violent from natural death) when her hour will come? If she will, it will be her main gift to Momo for whole his life.

Mme Rosa during one of her delirious moments, when episodes of violence against her in her past life return attacking her again

Mme Rosa in one of her hypertonic stupors which forebode her nearing death

Before Momo has learned to appreciate Mme Rosa’s care and personality, and her courage in confronting life (including death) in its truth, he went through many blind rebellious episodes.

Nadine as a good-hearted person with a liberal sensibility tends to underestimate/disavow “the vulgar” – the politico-economic reasons for being in poverty and in despair. She implies that many people on the bottom could really rise above it if they tried harder and be more persistent in their efforts. Just by thinking like this she is already betraying Momo, whom she is sincerely willing to help. She makes herself seductive in her friendliness with him because she implies he needs to be “seduced” to go out of poverty, as if what keeps him there is a kind of “perverse inclination”. But Momo doesn’t have “libidinous fixation” on anything connected with being a pauper. His relationship with Mme Rosa is much ahead of anything Nadine is capable of imagining and understanding with all her Middle class charm of an emancipated professional woman.

The composition of this shot is very telling. We see Momo and the two French boys who could be his friends. At least it is the hope of the two adults standing behind the two sides (Nadine, the mother of the boys, and her friend Ramon, a specialist in helping needy children), who as a decent people with a democratic worldview want human beings of different nations to have friendly ties instead of quarreling and making wars. Momo, in front of Ramon, is as if locked in the narrow piece of space. For him, the inhabitant of the urban ghetto, the French nature is limited by the conventional landscape framed on the wall. But French kids separated from him by the opened door belong to the natural milieu emphasized by the prevalence of day light. The space of the shot is as if broken right in the middle by the door that separates it on two areas. French kids feel free; they have a lot of place around, while Momo as if is looking not at them but at the door that as if is closing in front of his nose. For them the door is as though opened, but for him it is as though closed. Nadine introduces Momo to her sons while embracing them with a protective love while Ramon as though expects Momo to make an initiative of friendship.

This shot has registered in pantomimic terms the conflict between two approaches to human death – one official and officially considered humane is represented by Doctor Katz. According to him Mme Rosa‘condition is so “beyond repair” that she can die any moment, so she must be taken to the hospital and be cared for there until… But Momo, in response to her request, promised her that he will help her die in a spiritual way. The doctor is “moving up” the stairs of classical humanism, but Momo is risking “going down” by taking a not typical stance towards dying, because of his love.

A rare moment of joyful relaxation for both, Mme Rosa and Momo when she is not targeted by her memories of the Nazi period, and he by the thoughts of having been abandoned and thrown away and by his obsessive desire to grasp why it happened.

Mme Rosa drinks to being in life (for her it means a life that is inseparable from death, a life without God). She explains that after her tormenting experiences she doesn’t consider God as a meaningful figure in the universe and a respectable partner in human life; that she is “not afraid of him anymore.” The important point of her remark is that it is our hope to get God’s help makes us “be afraid of him”.

Her blood pressure soars above the clouds, but not her intentions and hopes.

Momo and his father who will not be his father by the decision of Mme Rosa

Momo is on the verge of being saved from poverty.

Mme Rosa is scheming to save Momo from his destiny, to mark him for an alternative life, to liberate him from being “condemned” by the circumstances. Why does she allow herself to lie – to cheat against the factual truth? May be, because she, for the sake of Momo tries to correct the injustices unalienable from this created world, to correct the Creation?

We see here the corpse of Mme Rosa, and it is Momo who was privileged to observe the sacred transition from life to death and to look in death’s eyes of Mme Rosa.

Moshe Mizrahi works with Samy Ben Youb over the screenplay text of the film.

Madame Rosa, an old ex-prostitute and a survivor of Nazi concentration camp, and Momo, an Arabic boy grown in Paris without his parents – what can make them into a couple, into people who could find in each other a togetherness that would transcend the everyday existence? Their life is in no way an idyllic exception from the human condition. They are not hermits amidst Babylon. Momo is one of the kids Madame Rosa babysits but he is not only a child of a prostitute, he is abandoned by his parents and lives on her, as if he is her adopted grandson. Their relations are not easy – Momo suffers, he looks for reasons for being an orphan and finds them in his “badness” and tries to rebel against the world of hypocrisy and pretense, and Madame Rosa is too often “on his way”. But as he becomes a bit older her pedagogy of humility, love and wisdom starts to reach him.

We see what’s happening with Momo, mainly, through four angles – by observing his learning experiences (his reactions on adults who are taking with him the position of teachers or helping authorities), by his pranks and transgressions, by his inventions/initiatives, and by his attempts to help Mme Rosa to care about the other children (by his identification with her).

He makes a dummy (to perform on the streets to make some money to help Mme Rosa but also to get a friend) – to experience how it feels to create somebody, what feelings he will have for this creature dependent on him for its existence. Among his pranks, transgressions and inventions is stealing food, lying to Doctor Katz to prevent Mme Rosa’s transportation to the hospital, and stealing a dog and, repeating in his imaginary the probable feelings of his imagined parents – selling it only to get rid of the money as an intuitive gesture of his disagreement with benefiting from abandoning.

Momo‘s life and destiny is actively influenced by four people. Besides Mme Rosa whose main pedagogical leverage was not even her personal dedication to him, but her personality crowned with her unique ability to contain her problems and her memories with her own existential intelligence, it was Mr. Amil, Arabic man of letters who taught him the mixture of Koran’s wisdom with that of French secular literature, Nadine whose pedagogy was to attract him to an irresistible technical toys promising technocratic fun and a professional future, and a prostitute who offered him a cloudlessly paradisiacal perspective to be kept by her and to live in luxury, laziness and with megalomaniacal self-image.

Mme Rosa’s love has put Momo in front of two ordeals: of acceptance of mortality and becoming indifferent toward the corrupting seductiveness of money. Mr. Amil’s teachings were about love and romantic impossibility to live without it which with endless repetitions are reduced to a prosaic survivalist conclusion that it is not impossible to live without love. Nadine and Ramon’s readiness to help was, no doubt, humanely oriented but lacked the actual love and libidinous sensitivity and was too connected with their conventionally good self-image. Their help was something valuable, but it was not the most important thing in the world (although help from liberal democrats is better than the indifference or hate of neo-conservatives). What is left for Momo is Mme Rosa’s love, her humility and the ability not to appeal for the ultimate help, be it secular humanism of the political system with its support in exchange for belief in its greatness, or religion which trades help for belief in eternity.

Mme Rosa’s courage to live with dignity and generosity in spite of the absence of God’s protection (she experienced with tormenting sharpness during Shoah years) makes her relationship with Momo spiritual in an existential sense. Liberated from salvation she showed Momo how not to be afraid of death and how not to worship earthy authorities with their proud power and shining money. The key towards Mme Rosa spontaneous pedagogy is building a psychological space which in regular people is occupied by God or/and social authorities. Her liberated existential intelligence based on positive awareness of our ontological limitations is transferred to Momo making him free from any megalomania, idolatry and intolerance towards dissimilar people.

Together with accepting mortality Momo has learned internal independence, but a world which is vainly impregnated by psychological defenses against death (when people are looking for power that is a metaphor of looking for immortality, and are full of hate toward otherness to prove to their authorities their self-sacrificial loyalty) doesn’t know what to do with a person who went through Mme Rosa’s “school”. Her death is the end of Momo’s story about Mme Rosa and him. But only now he is equipped to find/create his own destiny, his own world in front of him, amidst a fractured factual reality, but regardless and in spite of it.

Posted on Oct 3 2014 –   “Madame Rosa” (“La vie devant soi/The Life in Front of You” – 1977) By Moshe Mizrahi  by Acting-Out Politics