Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962
Starring: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti
The wedding of a former pimp, Carmine, is somewhat disrupted by the appearance of his former prostitute, Mamma Roma. She makes jokes, laughs loudly, and taunts both bride and groom. Later, she retires from prostitution to begin an above-board business as a fruit vendor, because her teenage son Ettore has come to live with her and she’s determined to give him a better life. But he would rather spend time with young criminals and a pretty, promiscuous girl, and Mamma Roma can’t help but spoil him. Despite her best laid plans, Ettore becomes involved in crime himself, just as her former pimp comes calling.
Pasolini’s second feature, which he also wrote, feels very much like an extension of his first film, Accattone, about a young pimp who must fend for himself after his girlfriend — really his cash cow — is injured. Both films are set in the Roman slums, an area known as the borgate. These settlements on the outskirts of Rome were originally a social experiment that began with the banishment of Rome’s poor during the fascist years and led to an equally nauseous but more charitable sounding public housing project during the postwar financial boom. Like Accattone, Mamma Roma is a documentary-style, neorealist look at this community and its rogues gallery of pimps, prostitutes, and petty thieves.
That controversial union of the sacred and the profane is continued here with Pasolini at his most overwrought and theatrical. While Accattone (the film’s titular protagonist) becomes something of a martyred, sacrificial figure and subtly weaves in religious imagery, despite the fact that Pasolini was an atheist, Mamma Roma is a sort of ungainly look at the Madonna and child — if they were a former prostitute and fledging thief. Larger-than-life actress Anna Magnani was one of the few stars Pasolini worked with, typically favoring non-professionals in his films. In interviews, he spoke about the fact that he was ultimately disappointed with her portrayal, but it’s hard to know when flaws belong to an actor, to a film’s director, or to its script.
Regardless of any issues, Magnani grabbed the role with both hands and exudes sensuality, determination, and a sort of warm crassness that makes her undeniably likable. As a young woman, she made her fame in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) as a pregnant woman who is tragically killed and Pasolini seems to consciously evoke that past character. It’s almost as if he images what would have happened to her a slightly more sinister world. She has an enormous, wonderful laugh and a generous, seemingly open-eyed attitude towards life (and appetites), but she seems strangely naive when it comes to Ettore, her son. She wants to artificially propel them both into the middle classes and hopes to find a respectable, easy career for her son.
But as a priest tells her, “You can’t get something from nothing,” and this is one of the many moments where her plans begin to go astray. Everything she does to procure betterment for Accattone is based in crime and coercion. When the priest doesn’t quickly and easily give her what she wants, she seeks assistants from pimps and prostitutes, who readily agree to do her bidding. Despite her generosity and warm-heartedness, she is also a liar and constantly reinvents herself. This doesn’t so much give her an immoral quality as it does a mythic one; the different stories she tells throughout the film are all different possible versions of Ettore’s origins. Pasolini utterly ignores Ettore’s history, including the identities of his father (who is likely her pimp) or his adoptive parents, though both Ettore and Mamma Roma state that he was forced to grow up on his own.
Mamma Roma’s main problem is actually that mother and son are reunited too late. He’s already a teenager when she decides to abandon her old life for a respectable new one and make good. Like Accattone, Ettore has a marked disdain for respectable life — though this could also be the simple disinterest of a teenage boy. He falls in love with a Bruna — Silvana Corsini reprises her role from Accattone as a young whore — and will do anything to give her cheap jewelry and claim her attentions. Bruna is used as an unsettling foreshadowing device, as her personality, her wealth of black hair, and her striking beauty is something like a young Mamma Roma. The jewelry she covets are symbols of death, including charms of a porcelain skull and silver gun, though Ettore gives her a Madonna and Child medallion. At one point she is miserable because her young son — who she had as a teenager and out of wedlock — is ill, a fate that will also befall Ettore.
Aside from the jewelry, Pasolini steadily introduces religious and death imagery and it’s easy to figure out that either Ettore, Mamma Roma, or both will die. The film’s opening is a jarring recreation of The Last Supper, where Mamma Roma’s former pimp, Carmine (played by Accattone himself, Franco Citti), is getting married to an innocent young girl. Mamma Roma makes a spectacle of herself by playing with pigs, singing taunts to the new couple, and laughing so loudly that another guest suggests she is going to choke. In a twist on the Oedipal there, her first intimate interaction with Ettore is to make him dance a tango with her, while listening to an old romantic song she says was sung by his father. She then notices that their apartment looks out over a cemetery.
The most gratuitous imagery occurs when Ettore is sick and dying in prison. The young man is died to his bed, presumably to protect against seizures, and shot at such an angle to imitate Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The film begins to unravel at this ending, in no small part because Pasolini doesn’t seem to know what to do with Mamma Roma herself. Ettore’s illness, which coincides with the theft of a patient’s radio from a hospital, seems like a deus ex machina, rather than an inevitable ending like the tragedy in Accattone. Mamma Roma’s hysterics — she tries to throw herself out a window — feel as empty and theatrical as Accattone’s own suicidal gesture, when he threatens to throw himself off a bridge. Both failed acts only when a crowd is conveniently standing around to prevent them.
I’m sure in some way Pasolini’s own incredibly close relationship with his mother — who he would cast in later films, much like Fassbinder — plays into this and there is a disturbing autobiographical element. Like Ettore, Pasolini grew up in the countryside, rather than a city, and moved around quite a lot. Though Pasolini’s mother was a constant presence — unlike his absent father — there is a sense that he raised himself. To turn the table on myself, perhaps I have trouble with this film because of my relationship with my own mother (which was either abusive or indifferent and is now completely nonexistent).
This second look at poverty and crime leading to death and martyrdom is not among my personal favorite of Pasolini’s films, but it’s still a powerful work. The strong central performances by Magnani, Citti, and Ettore Garofolo, who Pasolini apparently discovered in a restaurant, are compelling. The cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli, one of Pasolini’s regular collaborators, is incredibly as always. The film definitely comes recommended, particularly the Criterion two-disc DVD release, which includes a number of excellent special features.