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A prominent French surgeon of Jewish heritage (Phillippe Noiret) suffers a massive heart attack in the film's prologue and as his life hangs in the balance, scenes from his life growing up in Algiers flash by. The resulting drama recalls his life and in so doing pays homage to the contributions of his Mamma Titine (Sophia Loren) in giving him the strength and skill to overcome poverty and the stigma of his religion in his homeland.
The ailing Joseph Levy's reminiscence begins when he was a 13-year-old student during WW II. Though one of the brightest in his school, he is expelled following the enactment of new anti-Semitic laws. With somewhat of a struggle, he is able to be put back into school. At home, Levy seems to be Mamma Titine's favorite, even though he has four other siblings.
She is a strong, supportive woman who without complaint raises her children alone while her husband works in the Paris civil service under a false name. Though an essentially honest woman, Titine will stop at nothing to ensure that she meets her children's emotional and physical needs.
As the months pass into years, Joseph gradually comes of age and learns subtle ways of rebelling.