Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma opens with a wedding — a dinner scene reminiscent of Jesus’ last supper and drawing on the iconic images of Renaissance art with a twist of the grotesque. Replacing the somber, thoughtful and debating disciples presented by Leonardo Da Vinci, there’s a collection of vulgar country people, mischievous children and the brazen Mamma Roma. The dialogue and interactions are crass but have a certain air of spiritual well-being that is lost once the title character abandons poverty for the middle-class life. This almost perverse religious interpretation is not meant to be disparaging or disrespectful, but to suggest the inherent contradiction Catholicism has in its own understanding of itself. While religion often hinges on beauty and purity, Pasolini suggests in Mamma Roma that the spiritual beauty of humanity often emerges from vulgarity and contradiction.
Though there is really very little indication (if any) that Mamma Roma’s son deserves or embodies any sense of deity, Pasolini often depicts him as a Christ-figure, in particular during the film’s final act. This choice is a powerful one that suggests an ideal social theory related to communism, which does not privilege the individual as much as it does the collective. There is nothing preventing Mamma Roma’s son from being a God, because we are all equal and all deserving of his love in equal measure. The Church is not where we will find salvation within ourselves and those who love us; life is never that simple, and to become Christ is not an act of fulfillment. It is painful, sad and alienating. To embody Christ without being a God is to meet death alone and suffering. It is not a portrait of idealism, and perhaps that is why these sequences allude so potently to a painting by Renaissance artist Mantegna, The Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480).
Whether or not Pasolini intended an allusion to this painting in particular, it becomes a powerful representation for a unique and perhaps now controversial depiction of Jesus Christ. The painting feels very cinematic, with its extreme angle that serves a dual purpose to suggest Christ’s position of power “above” us (low angles emphasize power) while ironically presenting a non-ideal representation of Jesus as a cadaver with no suggestion of divinity. Perhaps most interesting of all is the central point of focus of the painting, which is quite obviously Jesus’ genitalia. Not only is it almost literally the central point of the image, but the lines of Christ’s body and the scene also draw your eye to that point, which has been exaggeratedly “tented” in a way that may seem strange or absurd considering our more chaste understanding of Christ.
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This image overflows in Pasolini’s aesthetic. As a gay man, it is clear that while he and the camera adore Anna Magnani, the central obsession in Mamma Roma is her son and his body, as well as those of other men. What is not necessarily obvious is that the genital focus of Mantegna’s painting was not unusual in the early Renaissance and was a popular way of representing Jesus’ humanity (this theory, as it remains, is presented most famously by Leo Steinberg in The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion). Though Mantegna’s painting in terms of style and composition seem ahead of its time, representing Jesus as having sexual organs — therefore implying sexual desire — was a common way of suggesting that he was not a God, but a man. As obvious as this seems, it does embody a contradiction with our understanding of sexuality in the contemporary age, especially as it relates to Christianity and Jesus Christ. It paints a portrait of humanity as being intimately defined by sex, an idea that Pasolini plays with frequently.
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Sexuality becomes integral to Pasolini’s religious interpretation, and this is further heightened by the supposition that God is perhaps a woman, as Mamma Roma becomes the God-like figure (though rooted in human form). Her first career as a woman of the night, and her powerful sexual charisma, suggest an intimate relationship between sex, worship and God that is not always consistent. But, that is much of Pasolini’s charm. At least as it applies to Mamma Roma, his work is not necessarily cohesive in terms of thematic interpretation, but this contradiction runs so deep that it becomes a theme in and of itself. As Mamma Roma strives so hard to be a good Christian woman who cares for her son, she similarly acts in ways no normal person would. She consistently breaks the law and uses sex to control her son, yet she comes across universally as a passionate and loving mother. The failure of her actions, and the inconsistency of what she says, reflects an incredibly strong screenplay and authorial voice on the part of Pasolini, who is able to create a world that mirrors our own in the way it seems at once ordered by the confines of social structure and occasionally fate, while also being a series of random events that viewers must scramble to make sense of through religion and mythology.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.