Judge Bill Gibron basks in the glory that was Rome as he revels in Pier Paolo Pasolini's cinematic masterwork.
Mother Rome…and her Son.
To Mamma Roma, humanity can be filled with joy. Open face turned to the world, her ebullient, guttural laugh can be heard everywhere: across the rural wedding celebration table of her ex-lover; down the streets of the red light district in Rome—a place she knows all too well; even up to the highest apartments on the city's outskirts. She is a good-hearted woman full of indomitable spirit and an insatiable lust for life. Her will rises above even the most miserable of circumstances to find a way out of despair and destitution.
But fate does conspire against her—frankly, against all people like her; individuals struggling against the shame and humiliation of the past. She will sacrifice all she can—money, position, comfort—to help others, and she expects a simple, sanguine reciprocity. Yet all she seems to get is sorrow and misery: from Carmine, who constantly uses and abuses her; from Ettore, her shiftless son, who seems as directionless and unpolished as she once felt. In reality, from all men, who sniff around her like dogs. Hoping to compel her offspring into a better, more dignified life, Mamma is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: she is willing to return to her redolent roots—if only Ettore will avoid the delinquents and the tramps who frequent their neighborhood and make something of himself.
In Pier Paolo Pasolini's gripping, gratuitous slice of Mediterranean life, Mamma is saint from whore, respectability from ridicule, and determination from desolation. She is the essence of Italy, the soul of its shattered, segmented extremes. But she is also flawed, fatally connected to people—even family—who will only aim to defy and defeat her. She is her country. She is her city. She is the spirit of salvation mixed with the bitter taste of failure. She is maternity. She is womanhood. She is Mamma Roma.
Facts of the Case
Mamma Roma is a reformed prostitute who hopes to find a better life for her son, Ettore. After her one-time lover and pimp Carmine marries a local peasant girl, Mamma makes plans to move Ettore to Rome, where he can find a good job and advance his prospects. Upon arriving in Italy's capital city, Mamma sets up a fruit stand while Ettore immediately takes up with a gang of delinquents from the neighborhood. They rob patients in the local hospitals and wage war with rival factions. Hoping to point him in the right direction, Mamma insists Ettore go to school. Instead, he is educated in the ways of the flesh by the local girl of ill repute, named Bruna.
Mamma is furious when she finds out. She turns to the church to get him a job, but the priest says it's impossible. So Mamma devises a plan: she will blackmail a local restaurant owner. Relying on her long-time friends, the hooker Biancofiore and the pimp Piero, Mamma stages an elaborate ruse. It works, and soon Ettore is gainfully employed. But the lure of criminal acquaintances and easy sex are too strong, and soon Ettore is back to his old tricks. Mamma is desperate to reform him, but when someone from her past reenters the picture, it seems all her chances are gone. Ettore is destined to meet a tragic end, and there is nothing that Mamma Roma can do about it.
So overloaded with symbolism and ideology that it almost folds under the weight of its own ambitions, Mamma Roma is a great film concept cast within the eccentric, manic world of its famed filmmaker, the highly controversial Pier Paolo Pasolini. For many film fans, that name instantly recalls one of the most repugnant chapters in the history of the genre of cinema. Viewed by many as a scathing political satire and yet still universally decried as one of the most abhorrent works of utter depravity ever conceived, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976) is often cited as the motion picture equivalent of a sideshow geek display. Featuring acts so appalling that recalling them only adds fuel to their foulness, it's the final film for a man whose death is still shrouded in as much mystery as his movies. Pasolini is both applauded as a genius and ridiculed as a victim of excess. He's made films on subjects as diverse as the prostitutes of Rome and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Hard as it may be to believe, there is indeed more to Pasolini than Salo's shit eating and child rape or the Savior's pain and Passion. At the very beginning of his notorious career, the director was one of Italy's leading neo-realists, hoping to meld the pragmatic with the magical to create something both recognizable and yet purely fictional. Pasolini wanted his films to be free to tell the truth while adhering to the staunch personal beliefs that haunted this devout Catholic, closeted homosexual with incredibly strict Marxist views. Mamma Roma is an example of one of his first experiments. And it almost succeeds.
As fascinating as it is frustrating, Mamma Roma is not as emblematic or breathtaking as the director hopes it will be. Within the context of its time of release, it does represent a marked step forward in Italian cinema, fusing two divergent schools (Italian comedy and realism) to create a kind of surrealistic character study. It does tell a very simple story (mother wishes a better life for her son) with a wildly experimental directing style (filled with quirks and idiosyncrasies) that makes both facets fallible. For first-time viewers, the reaction may be strong and certain: somewhere toward the end (when Carmine appears…again), Pasolini forgets everything he's done before and forces a very mannered, manipulative ending onto his otherwise truthful narrative. Up until this point, we are with the film, championing its hardened female lead and hoping for her eventual redemption / rescue. We have hissed the villains, laughed at the ridiculous antics during the blackmail scheme, and marveled at the completely natural performances and atmospheric locations. Pasolini has us in the palm of his hand, using incredible shots of faraway golden domes (perhaps it's the Vatican we are seeing) and long, luxuriant takes of his characters sauntering and swapping information along the seedy streets of Rome's sex-for-sale trade. We even accept his occasional lapses into self-indulgent confusion (the slow motion sequences that come out of nowhere, the constant clasps of young male faces) because of the power of his vision.
But then he pushes the audience one step too far, hoping they will go along with his invocation of the Bible, Ettore's outrageous prison treatment, and the direct visual rip-offs of religious paintings. Obviously, we are to view Ettore as Christ, the son of a sainted mother (who claims he was a "virgin" birth with immaculate conception overtones) who befriends and then rejects a woman of loose virtue (both his mother and the local gal Bruna) while constantly surrounded by a group of associates / apostles who view him as both a positive and a negative force in their lives. Sure, some of the sacrilegious extrapolations can be tough, but Pasolini believes in the destiny of his characters with an intense fatalism that marks almost every action they take. Just like Jesus before His crucifixion, Ettore appears fated to fall, to somehow never rise above the constant care of Mamma or the felonious influence of his friends.
Unlike the Messiah, however, Ettore has no message, no profound teaching to tell the world. His is a wasted life almost from the moment of its conception, and no matter how hard Mamma tries, or the number of plots she puts into place to control or correct him, he still cascades headlong into his preordained role as martyr to Mamma's cause. Looking at a post-fascist Italy as a potential paradise just waiting to erupt into a Mediterranean Eden, Mamma believes that only good can come out of the current state of her country. But Pasolini is here to set her straight, and the hardship and horrors he puts the woman through mark a final fall from grace, acknowledgment that even the most promising land can hold untold torment. Life is awful, according to Pasolini, and Mamma Roma gets a fine dose of it.
Since Pasolini was as well known for his political as for his religious convictions, Mamma Roma can also be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII protocols of Italy's capital city. Mamma Roma is like the locale she's named after, a strong independent force dragged between two competing systems of deceit. On the left is the past, represented by Carmine. Totalitarian, bestial, and bullying, he is the aggressive nature and notion of the country until and after Mussolini took power. Claiming control while systematically looking for a handout, Carmine is the old system, flawed but faithful; an aggressive anti-female force that elevates the male while it places the "mother" as a menial laborer within the construct. Ettore represents the new, untried future of Rome: a detached, distant drifter just looking for everything to be handed to him, with selfish, callous disregard for how it came about. He is the Italy that thinks it is owed something: for being duped and used by the Nazis; for not getting the post-War attention Germany and Russia did; for failing to completely rid itself of the corrupt bourgeoisie and the inert nobility. Caught in the middle is Mamma, trying to find a way to make both sides happy, to compromise and connive until she manages a truce or treaty, a way to give the past its tributes while guiding the future in the proper direction. Pasolini places his struggle for class warfare supremacy within such a basic narrative because he understands the ease with which he can manipulate the story and its characters to get his points across. Indeed, what you learn most throughout Mamma Roma is that there is a calculating force outside the action of the actors turning the prisms of this film to refract whatever light it wants to cast them in. For many, this will be too much control. But issues of power and persecution are at the heart of Pasolini's canon…and Mamma Roma.
The links to classical tragic mythology are also evident. Names are used to express certain feelings and sentiments—Mamma Roma for Mother Rome, Ettore for Hector, a derivation of the Greek word for "ruler"—and Carmine, a derivation from the Bible's Carmel, meaning garden (though what grows in his fetid soil except treachery and disease is a good question). Pasolini is indeed wrapped up in suggestive imagery, in the faces of boys (his sexual obsession) and the look of real people. Although they are prostitutes, Mamma Roma and her friend Biancofiore are attractive, sexually vital women who give off an air of dignity mixed with the erotic. The local trollop, Bruna, is a vile, vulgar pig with oily hair and matted patches of hair under her arms. Pasolini may hope to have her representing the earthy nature of Italian women, but his homosexual misogyny clearly comes out. In comparing the two ancillary females who figure prominently in Ettore's life outside of Mamma—Biancofiore and Bruna—the contrasts in both style and name become clear. Biancofiore is a "white flower," a pure spirit corrupted only in the corporeal sense. Bruna, whose name literally means "brown," embodies all that color stands for: earth, dirt, filth, shit. Contrasted against Mamma and her broad-shouldered, big-breasted maternity, they are equal derivations in decline. But Biancofiore doesn't fight her life; she accepts it and thrives. Bruna is constantly seeking attention and escape; when she doesn't get it, she's like a spoiled child denied a toy. All the elements are therefore in place for a traditional tragedy, in which a fatal flaw in our heroine (Mamma's undying, blind devotion to Ettore) leads her to a heartbreaking end.
Pasolini perverts the parameters of such melodrama to show how much of our own fault all misfortune truly is. He highlights Mamma's madness for her son, showing her literally chasing after him like an elusive goal. Mamma watches from the shadows as Ettore plays waiter at his new job, and there is a sickening sense of passion pouring from the beaming mother. Incest can be inferred in the film—Mamma seeking to guide Ettore out of the lairs of young, corrupt women and into the beds of more versed, discreet ladies (which she is). But just like the saintly devotion Pasolini shared with his own mother, Mamma and Ettore never "consummate" an attraction. It's all just another muddled aspect of a dense, sometimes delusional narrative. According to this film, Mamma is responsible for much of her own grief, failing to be anything more than a guide to her son. Had she been an example—rejecting Carmine outright, taking control of the Bruna / job situation herself—perhaps she could have saved Ettore. But Mamma Roma argues that such complete commitment can lead to a focus so narrow that one fails to see oneself falling under its more sinister sentiments. If there is a tragedy in this film, it's that Mamma Roma was so much in love with the idea of being a parent that she never really got around to doing any real parenting. She followed the systems that got her out from under the street life she lived in for so long, but failed to see how using that, instead of her own natural instincts, practically doomed her son from the start.
Mamma Roma, therefore, is a depressing film. It beats us over the head with hardship, and subverts a simple viewing experience by superimposing all manner of symbols and meaning onto its characters and situations. By the end, you can see Pasolini's deck of preachy playing cards, and you may even wonder why you sat around so long to watch him perform his cinematic tricks. But the amazing thing about Mamma Roma is how thoroughly engaging and entrancing it is, flaws and all. Pasolini can be called a lot of things—corrupt, amoral, overly eccentric—but he is not a bad director. Indeed, there are many magnificent filmmaking feats in Mamma Roma, exciting elements of the medium's language being explored and reinvented. Pasolini loves framing his actors in the middle of grand spaces (Ettore in the streets of Rome, Bruna in the fields near the apartments, Mamma on the sidewalks of sin street), the use of such a device recalling the compositional work of master painters. As stated before, he is obsessed with faces and façades and spends long, leisurely takes as well as single still-frame-like instances over the look in a youth's eyes, the part of a hairline, the crooked curve of a nose. Buildings and places also get the grand treatment as part of Pasolini's visual map. When Mamma and Ettore arrive at their new Roman home, the waves of implied majesty start the minute they enter the apartment complex's atmospheric atrium. An aqueduct wall, with a small wooden door to the side, represents a secret domain of sexual trysts for Ettore and Bruna. As their flirting and feelings increase, so does the size of this important opening. While many of these showboating facets are dismissed by modern audiences as obvious devices, these were novel, intuitive moves for 1960s cinema. Pasolini piloted film in a new direction with his work in Mamma Roma, opening up the creative canvas for filmmakers.
But more importantly, Pasolini is also trying to find poetry in filmmaking, a lyricism lost in the works of the true neorealists (who turn everything practically pragmatic) as well as the Hollywood-inspired fantasists (who render the world one big, brash fiction). As a famed poet himself, the director longed to turn the cinema into an extension of that literary art—allowing images and the juxtaposition of same to create the same emotional responses that couplets and the pairing of carefully chosen words do. And, for the vast majority of his movie, he is triumphant. Mamma Roma is a snapshot of Italian life shaved down to its most illuminating elements. It gets its point across with minimal dialogue and maximum movie magic. It stumbles on occasion, footage getting tripped up in Pasolini's artistic intentions. But for the most part, compelled by one of the greatest performances by any actress ever committed to the screen, Mamma Roma truly excels.
Movie legend Anna Magnani (best known to Western audiences for her turns in The Rose Tattoo and Wild is the Wind) grabs hold of the character of Mamma Roma and somehow manages to instill her very essence, her sensual, strong personality into every facet of this flawed heroine. Magnani has an easy-to-recognize set of acting components she relies on to get her emotions across (a flash of a smile, a toss of her head), but Pasolini keeps those obvious aspects concealed, letting them out only when they matter to the movie's truth. Surrounded by a cast of non-professionals and somewhat familiar faces—at least to Italian audiences—Magnani is the center of Mamma Roma. She is the perfect embodiment, in all attributes, of the title character—her temperament and her trade both past and present.
Realize, then, that Mamma Roma will be tough to get a handle on right off the bat. You will easily recognize the apparent bows to melodrama and overt symbolism. Magnani's performance will delight and depress you. Several sequences will sing the joys of moviemaking while others smother any chance at instant appreciation. But with time away to think, with the film a far-off memory and the images that remain still swimming in your head, you'll start to understand the brilliance of Pasolini. If ever there were a director who needed to be reintroduced to an ever-distant body of film fans, it would be this complex, convoluted man. More than Fellini or Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini set the standard for modern Italian cinema, opening up the doorways for such challenging directorial voices as Dario Argento (who seems to channel Pasolini in his image-rich horror films) and Michelangelo Antonioni (famous for his experiments with form and style). Pasolini's films today function as a tour through his tortured, tainted psyche, from the early manifestations of his philosophical struggles to his later acceptance and exploration of humanity. Certainly, as he got older and more proficient, he used the medium to meditate on all issues, those close to his head (sex and sexuality in his early '70s Trilogy of Life films) and his heart (the next level of human interaction, degradation and humiliation in Salo). Unlike some who think this wayward filmmaker was merely a sick and twisted pervert who blasphemed God even as he embraced His teachings, Pasolini had a true and telling method to his madness. Stripped of most of its quirky elements, Mamma Roma highlights the power and passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini's creativity in breathtaking perplexity. It's a stellar, unsettling film.
Visually, Mamma Roma is a stunning black and white world of contrasting shadows and light, elements of deep detail cast among the most crystal-clear monochrome backdrop imaginable. Criterion's handling of the transfer here couldn't be better. It resonates with such a wild divergence between ebony and ivory that it's impossible to believe the movie ever looked this good. The carefully restored 1.85:1 anamorphic image is electrifying and spellbinding. On the aural side, there are those who will question the odd Dolby Digital Mono mix that seems to showcase some poor dubbing or bad syncing on the part of Pasolini and/or Criterion. With a little knowledge about the filmmaker (gained from the exquisite bonus material—more on this in a moment), we learn that the director used to hire actors for their looks, not their voices or performance skills. An associate even indicates that Pasolini occasionally failed to give his good-looking icons recognizable dialogue. They were instructed to count from 30 to 100, and later he dubbed in other voices. Just like many of the directorial tricks he relied on, Pasolini used post-production ADR to tweak his tone. Mamma Roma is no exception. Even though the aural elements are tinny and lacking depth, the Italian language Dolby Digital Mono mix is perfectly fine.
As they do with most movies of historical or critical significance, Criterion creates a secondary disc of bonus features. Indeed, the extras here are mandatory viewing for any fan of the film or its creator. Three interviews about making the movie, by noted director Bernardo Bertolucci (an assistant director to Pasolini on his first film, Accattone), long-time Pasolini cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, and historian Enzo Siciliano, are included. They are all fantastic. Bertolucci discusses Pasolini's impact on Italian cinema. Delli Colli describes the director's use of specific lenses to achieve a compressed, artistic quality to his onscreen compositions. Siciliano talks about the obvious painter references in Pasolini's work. Speaking for over 30 minutes between them, their insights into the subject are concise and considered.
For a brilliant overview of Pasolini's entire life and career, the one-hour documentary simply entitled Pier Paolo Pasolini is required viewing. Highlighting almost every film in his canon, and offering thematic and symbolic discussions about the director's designs, this is one of the best biographical sketches of an enigmatic artist ever created. It is a brilliant move by the documentarian to use Pasolini's films (several scenes from which are shown) to illustrate how they match up against his life. While it does not open up any new information into Pasolini's death (he was murdered in 1975 under suspicious circumstances), we do learn about how he treated his sexuality, the nature of his politics, and the personal relationships that meant the most to him. Excerpts from Pasolini's poetry, and a chance to hear the long-dead director speak for himself, make this a magnificent piece of contextual information. Along with the massive 32-page insert, included in the DVD, offering essays on Pasolini, many of the blanks of his bizarre life and career are filled in very nicely.
But for those who want more of the visionary work by this controversial artist—and can't fathom plunking down hundreds of dollars on eBay for Salo—we are treated to one of his best-known shorts, the 30-minute La Ricotta, starring Orson Welles. Made in 1963 and considered by many to be one of Pasolini's crowning achievements, this story of a director trying to film his own personal vision of the Passion is indeed a glorious triumph. Pasolini adopts many of the strange experiments he used in Mamma Roma (variable film speeds, centered framing and close-ups) but he adds elements of slapstick comedy (sped-up film footage), social commentary (both the professional actors and the visiting dignitaries are viewed as clueless rubes), and personal faith (he lovingly recreates famous images from the Stations of the Cross in beautiful, oil painting color compositions) to expand his canvas. The result is a film that is as damning as it is funny, as emotional as it is ephemeral. Using mostly untrained country folk in key roles—including the lead buffoon Stracci, who spends his days hunting for available food on the set so he can feed his family—the clash of realism with outrageous, over-the-top elements is balanced perfectly. Even with Welles's horribly dubbed voice (rendering him a castrato for all intents and purposes), this is still a perfectly realized film. Pasolini seems to excel inside purely religious subjects (his Gospel According to St. Matthew is considered his best film), and La Ricotta confirms this theory. When working within an element he loves—in this case, the very basis of Christian doctrine and belief—Pasolini's genius emerges unscathed.
The fact that Mamma Roma's glorious laugh reverts to a horrified scream at the end of her sad, simple story is not as surprising as it may appear. By the end of her long journey, she has lost virtually everything she has striven so hard to protect. Ettore is gone from her life, just as Carmine comes crashing back in. The horrible past she has tried to hide has come back to claim and stain her hard-working reputation. The struggle to survive, to rise up out of poverty, abuse, and depravity has met with only middling, miserable results.
And yet, as she stares across the vast courtyard of her apartment complex, golden towers of the Catholic church staring back at her like faithful friends, a sense of resolve seems to cross over Mamma Roma's face. She realizes that, if it was God's will that she suffer, it is through His divine grace that she has also learned the truth. The son she tried to save could not be converted. The man she once let control her life is still an omnipresent force for foulness and terror, no matter how far she's run from him. Her decent status as a food cart vendor will never overcome her reputation of seller of flesh and sexual favors. All she has are her friends and herself, and with that final glance towards the towers of salvation, Mamma Roma finally understands her place in creation. She is there to bear the burden of life and find a way to endure. She will sweat and strain under the thumb of subjugation or the shame of her past. She will triumph and prevail, or die trying. She must. She has to. She is her country. She is her city. She is the spirit of deliverance mixed with the bitter taste of collapse. She is motherhood. She is femininity. She is Mamma Roma.
Mamma Roma, after many days of deliberation and reexamination, is found not guilty by reason of cinematic invention and is free to go. Though he is being tried posthumously, Pier Paolo Pasolini is also acquitted of all charges. May his reputation be forever reformed. As for Criterion, all charges against them have been dropped. This is another fabulous release by this typically terrific company. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Documentary by Ivo Barnabo Micheli: Pier Paolo Pasolini
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