DIR: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Mamma Roma, played by Anna Magnani, is a middle-aged whore in the capital city of Rome. Her pimp Carmine (Franco Citti), upon his marriage to a nice city girl, releases Roma and she tracks down her 16-year-old son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), who has been living in the country. She moves the naïve youth to the city and tries to find him a solid job, all the while working on a fruit stall of her own.
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle described Magnani as "erupting with lust, laughter and carnivorous pleasure." If by that he meant that she was an exuberantly annoying scenery chewer then I'd say he's spot-on, but I think his statement is a complimentary one. Magnani is certainly a required taste in terms of screen presence and performance style (she magnetizes the frame) but I find her cackling rather grating and unbelievably OTT. Her joy for life seems a little bipolar to say the least, and her forced laugh is like the combined sound of a screeching chalkboard and an exploding helium balloon; the overplayed guffaws seeming more at home in a comic strip than a gritty drama. And considering that she's the main character in Mamma Roma, the second feature by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (who was murdered in 1975), you may understand why my patience was often tested...
But the film certainly isn't without merit. Pasolini - even if he never really grew as a filmmaker - certainly has an artists eye, and casts a gentle yet dark beauty over his doomed characters. The DP is Tonino Delli Colli, the master lensman who also shot films for Sergio Leone and Roman Polanski. He shades the film beautifully and pays real attention to the landscape; Rome under the cover of night takes on a more haunted tone than the optimistic city of the daytime, where the sun radiates over friendly fields. One scene sees Roma walking through the streets at night telling stories to strangers; men pick up and leave off on her narrative path, one by one joining and departing the story of her life. The continuous shot embraces the darkness of the night and isolates the characters from their surroundings - it's as if they're on a path to nowhere. There is some genuinely dazzling direction in the film, not least in the stunning ending which packs so much power you wonder why the rest of the film is quite so dull.
There are other interesting aspects to the film, most notably the religious symbology and recreations of Christian art - at Carmine's wedding the reception table is a direct recreation of da Vinci's 'Last Supper'. Faith is writ large over the characters in Mamma Roma, especially as we spiral, inevitably, towards the tragic denouement where Pasolini evokes Andrea Mantegna's (an Italian renaissance painter who specialized in religious imagery) 'Lamentation Over The Dead Christ'. Perhaps the combination of class and religion form the backbone of Pasolini's vision for Mamma Roma, and certainly religion reappears in some of his later work; he was, by the way, an atheist. In regards to class, Pasolini was also a member of the Communist Party from 1947 to 1949, but was expelled due to his homosexuality.
Mamma Roma is a sporadically engaging picture but mostly I just didn't care about the characters. Magnani portrays Mamma as a street-smart schemer, but even her mellower moments (of which there are many, in fairness) aren't interesting. Her name seems to hint toward the idea of the nightwalker being the heart of Rome - the upper class may look down on her but in many ways Mamma is the truth of the city; its underground cog which keep the whole working. Sadly there's very little steam behind that idea, save for a scene involving fellow prostitute Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano), whose laugh is just as disturbingly medicated as Roma's, where they use their profession to scheme against a rich businessman. There's really not much chance of rooting for Ettore either - Garofolo portrays him as such a drip that it can be hard to read what emotion he's feeling at any one time.
It may be a technically impressive film but there's little else to recommend Mamma Roma for. Pasolini was an acclaimed poet and artist as well as a filmmaker, and certainly his later work suggests evidence that his three trades often slipped into one, but there's none of that here. There are beautiful images, some smooth camerawork and a neat pace courtesy of editor Nino Baragli, but that's not enough to carry the film. At the Italian premiere in 1962 Pasolini was attacked by protesting fascists who had taken against the picture. Their reasons were political, but I just find myself wishing I could have been that impassioned - positively or negatively - toward a film which is ultimately disappointingly average.
The remastering job is amazing and in terms of photography Mamma Roma doesn't seem to have aged a day. The image is sharp and quite beautiful with very little grain at all. It's so sad that these releases don't have any extras though; not even a trailer.