Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
It's not often that a film director has direct personal experience with the life of the ghetto or what in post-war Rome was called the borgate. Pasolini had that kind of direct knowledge and parlayed it into an exceptional film about life in the sub-proletariat.
Historical Background: Pier Paolo Pasolini, born in 1922 in Bologna, was the son of a career soldier and Fascist father and a schoolteacher mother with a love for poetry. Pasolini despised his father but adored his mother, living with her throughout his life. Though Pasolini is known internationally mostly for his films, he was known in Italy for his poetry, novels, essays, and magazine articles as well as his eccentric personality, views, and life-style.
After World War II, Pasolini became a schoolteacher and joined the Italian Communist Party in 1946, but he was later expelled and was often criticized by the political left for the substance or style of his creative efforts, even as he was also being criticized from the right. Pasolini was a homosexual and publicly courted adolescent and young adult street boys and men. Early in his life, he was accused of sexual activities with students and suspended from the teaching position that he held at the time.
Pasolini and his mother moved to Rome in 1950, finding refuge in the borgate, which were the sub-proletariat slums on the margin of the city. There, Pasolini became immersed in the world of pimps, prostitutes, and petty thieves and was arrested on more than one occasion. It was this experience with the seedy underbelly of the Italian "economic miracle" that percolated into Pasolini's political perspective and which provided the substance of his first two novels, Ragazzi di vita (1955) and Una Vita Vilenta (1959), and his first two films, Accattone! (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962). Both films caused scandal, first, for treating "amoral" characters sympathetically and, second, by "contaminating" the sacred with the profane. The use of religious symbols, images (mimicking religious paintings of the Italian Renaissance), and associations in the context of profane subject matter would continue to be a hallmark feature of Pasolini's work throughout his career. Still more controversial than his first two feature films was a short episode, called La Ricotta (1962), which was part of a team effort involving Rossellini, Godard, and Gregoretti. La Ricotta, which is included as an "extra" in the Criterion release of Mamma Roma, portrays a director who is filming a version of the Passion. That seems to suggest that Pasolini's 1964 film, Gospel According to St. Matthew, was already gestating in his mind.
Pasolini's early films were created on the heels of the Neo-realism period in Italian cinema. Though sharing some of the methods of the Neo-realists, Pasolini's cinematic works grew from his unique filmmaking vision and all closely reflect Pasolini's distinctive personality and beliefs. His style was therefore neither substantially derivative of other directors nor likely to spawn a subsequent school. Pasolini's early films, including Mamma Roma, form a bridge between Neo-realism and what became the new Italian cinema.
The Story: Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) is an aging prostitute who yearns for a better life in the petit-bourgeoisie. As the story opens, she arrives with three pigs in tow at a wedding reception. The groom is her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti), and the bride a young but rather homely country gal. Carmine's marriage is also Mamma Roma's liberation from the life of prostitution. She has purchased a license to operate a fruit stand. More importantly, she will now be able to reunite with her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), who has been living in the country with some unspecified caretakers. Ettore is already seventeen years old and we wonder how much, if any, influence Mamma Roma has had on his upbringing. Ettore is pleased to be moving to Rome, though a little skeptical about depending on a mother whom he has seldom seen.
In Rome, Mamma Roma proudly shows Ettore where they will soon be living. She shares her aspirations for a better life with her son and teaches him to dance a Tango in celebration. He begins to fall in with a group of four adolescent boys of the borgate, who are jobless and shiftless. Ettore soon learns that he can sell items stolen from his own home or elsewhere through a vendor of secondhand goods. He also takes up with a single mother in her twenties, named Bruna (Silvana Corsini), who freely provides sex for all of the lads in Ettore's group. Mamma Roma very much wants something better for Ettore and urges him to study or find a job, but he finds school boring and jobs are scarce. She even buys him a motorbike so that he can get around. Mamma Roma seeks advice from the local priest (Paolo Volpon), but he quite sensibly points out that Ettore needs to develop some skills to be employable. "You can't make something out of nothing," he says.
With the help of a cooperative pimp and a friendly prostitute, Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano), Mamma Roma sets up a modest blackmailing scheme to land Ettore a job. Mamma Roma and the pimp conveniently arrive just as Biancofiore is doing business with a man who owns a restaurant. The pimp pretends to be Biancofiore's outraged brother and threatens to stab the man with a kitchen knife. Mamma Roma comes to the man's "rescue," because of his "generosity," which translates ultimately into providing a job for Ettore as a waiter. Later, Mamma Roma also arranges for Biancofiore to seduce Ettore, which is simple enough to do, so that he'll forget about Bruna, who is no competition for a professional. Just the kind of mother every teen boy needs!
Mamma Roma's dream of upward mobility begins to crumble when Carmine shows up. His marriage has broken up and he needs money. He demands that Mamma Roma go back to walking the streets or he'll tell Ettore about her former life. Mamma reluctantly complies but, in the end, Ettore finds out anyway, from Bruna, that his mother is a prostitute. That revelation plus Ettore's own lack of initiative bursts all of the middle class pretensions that Ettore might have had either for himself or his mother. He starts to become increasingly delinquent.
Ettore and his friends turn increasingly to thievery to support themselves. One of their scams consists of going into the hospital during visiting hours and stealing items from the bedsides of sleeping patients, for later fencing. Ettore gets caught, on one such occasion, partly because he has a fever and exercises poor restraint in selecting an item for theft. He gets thrown in jail and becomes delirious. He is then strapped to a table and put into solitary confinement. He dies there, alone and neglected, strapped down in a pose reminiscent of crucifixion.
Themes: Pasolini was a deeply fatalistic individual and believed that "the only thing that makes man really great is the fact that he will die." The foremost theme of Mamma Roma might be summed up as the hopelessness (and infectious influence) inherent in the efforts of the sub-proletariat to improve their lot in life. Pasolini despised the consumerism of the bourgeoisie and felt that the sub-proletariat despoiled itself in striving for middleclass status. Mamma Roma's purchase of a motorbike for her son is emblematic of her contamination by consumerism. One might cynically note that Pasolini late succumbed to the lure of consumerism himself. When he was murdered and run over by his own car at just fifty-three years of age, the car was an Alfa-Romero. At least his tragic death fulfilled his own criterion for greatness.
Pasolini portrays Mamma Roma as virtually imprisoned in her social class and pathetic in her efforts to emerge from it. It was for this reason that Pasolini's fellow Communists rejected his work, even though it was also vociferously rejected by the neo-Fascists on the right. The Communist perspective on the arts favored portrayals of the proletariat as noble and wholesome individuals unfairly suppressed by decadent capitalists. Pasolini, instead, paints a picture of life in the borgate that is itself morally decadent and anything but noble.
I don't personally agree with Pasolini's nihilistic and fatalistic view regarding the futility of efforts aimed at self-betterment. First off, Mamma Roma and Ettore represent just one instance of a family trying to improve itself and sliding back. One example never proves a generalization. Many people do succeed in rising from one class to another over the course of their lives. Those who are mired down in poverty or the lower class, generation after generation, are typically those families that have yet to develop the kind of parenting skills required to prepare children for success and/or happiness. It is noteworthy that it is when Ettore discovers his mother's lack of virtue that he loses all hope of respectability for himself.
Carmine was far from the only obstacle to Mamma Roma's fond hopes for improvement. The Priest came closest to identifying the real nature of class confinement. Ettore had received no education and no training that would prepare him for useful occupation. He also had no guidance in developing aspirations or ambitions. Mamma Roma thought to compensate for seventeen years of neglected mothering with one final push, but it was too little too late. Her love for Ettore was certainly sincere, but far too smothering and dominating for a seventeen year-old, especially when there was no history between them to justify that degree of motherly control. At one point in the film, Mamma Roma complains about the fact that Ettore's (unidentified) father had parents and grandparents who were societal dregs as well. Parenting skills (or lack thereof) tend to get passed on from one generation to the next. We can imagine that Mamma Roma had probably received ineffective parenting herself and that Ettore, had he lived to father children, would likely have been a poor father. The rise from poverty or the lower class to the middle or upper class is more an issue of evolving values and interpersonal skills than a matter of one's physical environment. It takes some one person along the way to break the cycle, by learning effective parenting skills despite not having experienced good parenting as a child. Mamma Roma certainly had the desire for Ettore to get ahead in life, but she had failed to prepare him in any way to ensure it. It's not mere desire that counts; it's putting in the hard work day in and day out, year in and year out, to teach your child useful interpersonal and productivity skills.
A second theme of Mamma Roma is a kind of proto-incestuous element in the relationship between Mamma Roma and Ettore. It is evident when she dances the Tango with him, when she refers to him as her "little pimp," and when she begs Biancofiore for particulars about what he was like in bed. ("He had a healthy appetite," says Biancofiore, who then refuses to add more.) Pasolini returned to the theme of Oedipal conflicts repeatedly in his films and openly admitted to having such conflicts himself. He called his mother "My Little Bones." Magnani had a son named Luca and presumably understood Oedipal issues well enough herself.
A third theme is Pasolini's radical Catholic perspective that colors his interpretation of all that he witnesses and then portrays through his art. Pasolini sees religious imagery and symbolism everywhere. Mamma Roma, which means literally "Mother Rome," can be seen as a profaned version of the Madonna. The identity of Ettore's father is mysterious, suggestive of a virgin birth. The opening wedding scene was styled after a painting of The Last Supper and Ettore death scene mirrors a 15th-century painting by Andrea Mantegna, called Dead Christ. Thus, Ettore becomes a martyred teenager. There are times when Pasolini's religious references become overly thick and banal. Pasolini believed that "man's only greatness lies in tragedy." All of his films are thus tragedies in search of greatness.
Production Values: The script for Mamma Roma follows the Neo-realist tradition to the extent of evoking emotions of empathy and concern for the struggling lower class. A story of a struggling mother trying to provide for her family and improve their lot is ordinary enough, but the particulars with which Pasolini fills out his story are exceptional. The sympathetic treatment of prostitution and blackmail was quite original and aroused the consternation of Italian authorities. Pasolini's script was also exceptional for what it did not tell. Many particulars are left to our imaginations. We don't know, for example, the identity of Ettore's father or who raised him in his youth. For that matter, we learn precious little about Mamma Roma's history.
One of Pasolini's consistent strengths, as a filmmaker, is the quality of his dialog. Pasolini had a keen interest in language, local dialects, and street language, in particular. He drew both his actors, for this film, and those he later used for dubbing from the borgate, giving the film exceptional linguistic authenticity. Then, Pasolini drew on his experience as poet and novelist to write dialog that was always compelling and sometimes, even, poetic.
There is a pair of standout scenes in this film in which Mamma Roma strides along the prostitute's promenade, soliloquizing on life, the hardships of prostitution, love, and destiny. As she strolls along, the camera rolls backward, receding at the same pace as she approaches, thus suggesting the unattainable destination that is her dream. As she walks, the people in her life a mix of hookers, pimps, and customers momentarily join her, share a bit of dialog with her, and then peel off, each in turn. The two recurrences of this basic motif pretty much sum up the essence of Mamma Roma's existence: a few passing contacts with the folks mired at her own level of existence combined with striving toward an unattainable objective. Mamma Roma's boisterous demeanor can be easily understood as defense against genuine involvement.
Pasolini had a deep love for the paintings of the Renaissance masters and his cinematographic style demonstrates it. His mise-en-sceée is always painterly. He emphasizes frontal shots with a shallow depth of field. Backgrounds are carefully selected to set off his characters. Both Mamma Roma and its predecessor, Accattone!, were shot in gritty, high-contrast, black-and-white.
Pasolini and Magnani (1908-1973) did not get along well during the filming of Mamma Roma. In the interview included in the booklet with this DVD, Pasolini is quite open about his dissatisfaction with Magnani's performance and his own failure to adhere to his rule regarding no use of professional actors. Magnani was herself a product of the bourgeoisie and she never did fit Pasolini's image of a woman of the sub-proletariat, striving to reach the middleclass. Most viewers, however, do not have Pasolini's intimate understanding of the borgate and instead judge Magnani's performance by their own (typically) middleclass standards. Most critics are full of praise of Magnani's performance here. Personally, I would prefer to have seen what Pasolini had in his mind. Magnani is loud, abrasive, and as full of life as her laugh is raucous. How one responds to that is a matter of personal taste. Magnani wins praise from most critics for her lusty, bravura performance, but it also tends to overshadow and overwhelm the other performers unfortunate enough to be on the screen at the same time. I personally don't care much for loud people who drawn every bit of attention to themselves, so, for me, Mamma Roma was not all that sympathetic a character.
It is said that Magnani was also dissatisfied with her own performance, but for different reasons than Pasolini. On the other hand, she also once referred to Mamma Roma as her most important role. After Magnani saw Accattone!, she reportedly announced that she would just have to make a film with its young director. She had already won an Oscar in 1955 for her performance in The Rose Tattoo, so a request from the diva could hardly be denied. Pasolini responded by offering the part of Mamma Roma. Magnani had a history of playing an earthy, enduring kind of woman and she turned Mamma Roma into her persona rather than delivering what Pasolini had intended. Magnani's other work includes Open City (1945), L'Amore (1948), The Golden Coach (1952), and The Rose Tattoo (1955)(See Stephen Murray's Review).
All of the performers other than Magnani were nonprofessionals drawn from the borgate. The young Ettore Garofalo is perfect, in my opinion, as Ettore. Pasolini spotted the young man working as a waiter in a restaurant and then proceeded to write the film script around him, before even speaking with him. Later, he asked the lad if he would like to star in a film. That has to be a better than average pick-up line!
Bottom-Line: Thirty-three years passed between the release of Mamma Roma in Italy in 1962 and its release in America. The double-DVD special release from Criterion offers not only a crisp transfer (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio) that is nearly free of defects but also a fine package of extras. The first disc includes the main feature (restored to its full 110 minutes instead of the 105 minute version produced by Italian censorship) as well as a theatrical trailer and movie posters. The second disc is fully loaded with ancillary materials. There are three taped interviews about Pasolini featuring his famous protégé, Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (who photographed Mamma Roma and many other Pasolini films), and Enzo Siciliano, who is author of a biography entitled Pasolini. There's also an excerpt of that biography included in the pamphlet that accompanies the DVD set as well as an interview conducted with Pasolini by Oswald Stock and an essay by a New Yorker named Gary Indiana. Also on disc two is an hour long poetic documentary relating to Pasolini and a 35-minute short directed by Pasolini, called La Ricotta. The short was originally part of a team film effort that included segments from four of the most experimental and controversial directors of the sixties, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti. The compendium film was entitled "RoGoPaG", an acronym formed from the first letters of each director's name.
Mamma Roma is an endearing film, far different in tone and subject matter than Pasolini's later somewhat pornographic fare. It lacks polish, but that can hardly be attributed to it being only the director's second film, since polish never did become much of a Pasolini attribute. Mamma Roma is in Italian with English subtitles and has a running time of 110 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:
The Bicycle Thief
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
Life is Beautiful
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The Sons Room
The Spider's Stratagem
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age