The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mamma Roma (1962/Italy/dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) appeared at #25 on my original list.
What it is • Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) has paid her dues, sacrificing her son to another family and surviving on her own through prostitution. Now she feels that she has earned the right to a steady, legitimate job in Rome, providing for her adolescent son in the hope that he will achieve a prosperity and happiness. It is not so easy. The past haunts them in various forms, including Carmine (Franco Citti), Mamma Roma's former pimp who claims to have been corrupted by her. Ettore drifts from his mother into the arms of a lively young woman (Silvana Corsini) and a dangerous crowd. We can feel the threats emerging from all directions, as a mother attempts to shield her son from the forces that shaped her own life. This was only the second film by the prolific Pasolini, who would rack up twenty-five credits in his fourteen-year career, cut short by his notorious, shady murder in 1975. It was variously condemned and banned like many of his other movies, although today it seems like one of his most accessible and universal stories (if he was new to directing, he wasn't to writing - this was his twentieth screenplay including the similarly-themed Nights of Cabiria which you'll see covered soon). The film exists at a crossroads (which Pasolini's scripts for Fellini had helped construct) between the grounded, socially-concerned neorealist films of the forties and fifties and the more abrasive, flamboyant features of the sixties by young directors like Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket) and Bernardo Bertolucci, who trained under Pasolini. This context fits the film's narrative, caught between the search for economic security and the temptation of youthful rebellion, and also its style, characterized by sharp cutting and fluid camera movements. There is grace and anxiety in Mamma Roma, released in equal measure by the film's final moments.
Why I like it •
Mamma Roma is not a film I often see celebrated among Pasolini's greatest. Some of the criticisms I've read seem discomfited by the film's blatant pathos or Magnani's larger-than-life acting style (even Pasolini himself reported dissatisfaction with the result, though he was glad he cast her), preferring to celebrate the cooler Gospel of St. Matthew or the ice-cold Salo. Pasolini always has a severity to him - he was an intellectual theorist as well as a practitioner of cinema - but he is also capable of immense poetry (his original vocation). In fact, it's hard for me to think of a filmmaker (even the more obviously lush Bertolucci) whose work flows more musically, arising from inexplicable sources that we can sense without being able to logically dissect. Of course, the music itself helps, particularly the Vivaldi that scores crucial moments. There's a particular moment when a restless Ettore wanders into a field, stepping over ruins before he runs into young punks who will lead him astray (having written about it recently, this reminds me a bit of a more tragic, realistic version of Pinocchio's journey to school in another Italian city). I'm not sure I can summon up exactly how these shots affect me, but they evoke a certain feeling of youth, of freedom and danger feeding off one another, of the vivacity of the moment against the backdrop of history. I find this incredibly powerful. Like some other films on the list, Mamma Roma's place is secured by one particular sequence (which I can't discuss without suggesting some plot details, so skip the rest if you don't want any hints of where the story goes). As in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, the scene involves slow death, overpowering music, and an achingly, even ominously still landscape. Unlike Peckinpah's western, however, Pasolini's melodrama focuses on the grief which follows this death, rather than simply the death itself. He juxtaposes the movement of Mamma Roma and the camera that captures her with the fierce "reaction shot" of Rome itself, a lofty city whose grandeur seems to sneer at the humans crushed underneath its weight. This may the most single effective cut I've ever experienced in a movie, although really it's several cuts, back and forth, until the trumph of social oppression is perfectly clear. Mamma Roma may be a tearjerker, but its own tears are acidic, a condemnation of authoritarian indifference and police brutality which still stings today.
More from me • When recommending Hulu/Criterion films, I crafted a capsule to summarize the film's appeal to me. A clip (from the ending, fair warning) is featured at 1:16 in "Runaway Cinema", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
How you can see it • Mamma Roma streams on Hulu and is available for DVD rental from Netflix.
What do you think? • Is this film underrated in Pasolini's canon? If you much prefer other Pasolini films, which ones and why? What is the strongest performance you've seen from Anna Magnani?
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Yesterday: The "Up" Series (#26)
Tomorrow: Young Mr. Lincoln (#24)