In Belleville, Paris, Madame Rosa, an elderly French Jew who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and worked as a prostitute, now runs a boarding home for the children of prostitutes. One of them is Momo, an Algerian boy who is believed to be 10. Although Madame Rosa is Jewish, she raises Momo as a Muslim in respect of his heritage. She is in fact concealing the fact that Momo is 14, having a strong skepticism of official papers and what they can or cannot prove.
Madame Rosa is in exceedingly poor health, at times falling back into the belief that she will be arrested by the French Police and sent back to Auschwitz. She refuses to be hospitalized. Momo believes she should be euthanized. When told by a French doctor that euthanasia contradicts French values, Momo replies he is not French and that Algerians believe in self-determination. Momo is with Madame Rosa when she retreats to her hidden space under the staircase to die, and is discovered with her body three weeks later.
Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi made the film after moving to France. Actress Simone Signoret, who starred as Madame Rosa, was initially advised by her husband Yves Montand not to take the role, and refused it for a year. Signoret explained why she was eventually persuaded to play the part, saying, "A role like that comes every 20 years. It is a cake. She is everything— liar, sincere, gourmand, poor, stupid, intelligent, warm, nasty. And she dies on top of that. If I had said 'no,' and another woman had played it, I would have been sick."
She had to gain significant weight for the part, with Mizrahi choosing undersized dresses with floral decorations to accentuate the weight gain. Signoret was in her 50s at the time, and was made to appear 10 years older, with her wrinkles accentuated and her cheeks widened with cotton. Her legs were also padded.
With two million admissions, La vie devant soi was a great success in France. Its success may have been aided by the popularity of the TV series Madame le judge, which Signoret starred in.
The film opened on 19 March 1978 at the Plaza Theater in New York City. It made $5.2 million in the United States.
Madame Rosa met "acclaim" in North America. Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, judged that Moshé Mizrahi's direction of the film was beautiful, and Madame Rosa was "a tremendous character," Signoret's "best role in years." Molly Haskell, writing for New York, interpreted the story as "a wishful fable of Israeli-Arab reconciliation," and said it "managed to get to" her. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle praised it as "an unforgettable film," asking "How can a film about pimps, whores, transvestites and average people who populate Belleville in France be a film about love and human kindness? ...It's a story of warmth and understanding between Arab and Jew." Anna Simons of The Harvard Crimson stated the film "is carried to near perfection by Simone Signoret's brilliant rendition of Madame Rosa and Samy Ben Youn's impressive performance as Momo."
James Monaco's 1992 The Movie Guide, reviewing the VHS, gave Madame Rosa three and a half stars, stating it "handles its underlying conflicts- between Arabs and Jews, between Nazis and Jews- well, and explores its mixed racial and cultural milieu with grace, sensitivity and subtlety." In 2013, Xavier Leherpeur of L'Express described Signoret as unforgettable in the film. In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave it two and a half stars, describing it as "aimless." On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an approval rating of 83%, based on six reviews.
Madame Rosa's release, at a time when U.S. President Jimmy Carter was negotiating a peace between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, boosted its campaign at the Academy Awards, where it ultimately won for Best Foreign Language Film. Critic Molly Haskell believed the award, "in the principle of compensation," was balanced by Vanessa Redgrave winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, allowing Redgrave to make a controversial statement in favour of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In response to Redgrave's speech, Mizrahi commented, "Basically, she's right." In France, Signoret won the César Award for Best Actress, which she had not received before.