It’s hard to believe that Pier Paolo Pasolini and Anna Magnani could ever be unhappy about their impassioned 1962 drama Mamma Roma. Before Pasolini ever stepped behind the camera for Accattone, his incendiary 1961 directorial inauguration, he was already a renowned novelist, poet and screenwriter. Magnani, meanwhile, was an Oscar-winning paradigm of Italian cinema, star of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist classic, Rome, Open City (1945), and his scandalous short, The Miracle (1948) (this to say nothing of the film that garnered her the 1956 Academy Award, The Rose Tattoo). Now here they were, two of Italy’s most celebrated artists collaborating on their first film together. And yet, when all was said and done, after Mamma Roma’s lackluster box office returns and its lukewarm critical reception, neither director nor star were particularly pleased with the result. For his part, Pasolini shouldered the blame, stating, “I thought that the Magnani of Rome, Open City could pass wholly into my reality, but this did not happen, because Anna Magnani remained effectively within her own consciousness as an actress, her own independence as such, and rightly so. It was my mistake to think I could take her completely into my hands and destroy her. It was absurd and inhuman of me even to think such a thing; and, in fact, Mamma Roma shows these limitations.”
In a vigorous showcase of vacillating emotions, each as fervent as the next, Magnani plays the title character, the figuratively-named Mamma Roma. She is an aging prostitute who resumes guardianship of her teenage son, Ettore, played by Ettore Garofolo in his silver screen unveiling. Keen to establish a foundation from which their familial future can flourish, Mamma takes Ettore out of the Guidonia slums and into one of the many modern housing developments scattered upon the suburban Roman landscape. The transition to propriety will not be easy, though, for always lingering like a prowling wolf is Mamma’s prior existence, an unsavory past personified by her former pimp, Carmine. As Barth David Schwartz points out, “Any of the subproletarian people who try to struggle up and out will be pulled, or pushed, back and under. Accattone never imagines a way out; for Mamma Roma, that road exists but has been mined by ‘the system,’ whose front-man is Carmine.”
Played by Franco Citti, who first appeared in Accattone and would go on to work with Pasolini on five additional features (and who was himself arrested and temporarily imprisoned during production on Mamma Roma), Carmine reenters the picture threatening to divulge Mamma’s seedy backstory if she doesn’t produce some ill-gotten cash. As Pasolini dynamically dollies in on Carmine’s face, the gravity of his return is visually underscored, and when the pimp cruelly sneers, “Do I have to teach you how to make money?,” it becomes similarly evident that Mamma will never truly be free. The unforgiving past hangs heavy, like an immovable blemish or an inexorable albatross. “You knew this would end badly for one of us,” comments Carmine later in the picture. As the saying goes, and Mamma Roma can testify to its dreadful accuracy, “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”
Part of the conflict between Pasolini and Magnani had to do with their divergent approaches toward acting. For all of her seemingly impulsive naturalism, Magnani was a consummate, honed professional, whereas Pasolini tended to celebrate amateur vivacity and a lack of polished pretension. Magnani was also a movie star, and that meant she had concerns about her outward appearance, principally the bags under eyes. While this may have bothered her, this purity, this imperfection, is among Magnani’s most beguiling characteristics, and in the case of Mamma Roma, it accentuates a faced etched and worn by a life fully lived, if not necessarily well.
Behind the scene disputes notwithstanding, Magnani was a physical and verbal dynamo. As author Enzo Siciliano puts it, “Pasolini used her for what she was — a force of nature — but only to a certain point.” Popularly known as “la belva” (“The Beast”), Magnani called herself an “instinctive animal,” while Pasolini notes, “Anna’s poetry is, at worst, poetic and naturalistic; mine, at worst, is exquisitely mannerist.” There was thus a palpable tension over control, intention, and contrasting modes of expression. Though Mamma Roma features definitive elements of Pasolini’s bristly-visceral cinema, when Magnani is on screen, she reigns supreme: she can’t help but command the scene — any and every scene. Fracturing Pasolini’s formal vigilance, Magnani’s body, writes Sam Rohdie, is “forever bursting its boundaries in Mamma Roma: laughter, anger, hysteria, dancing, song, grimaces, tears, anguish. It is a body which gets the better of her even as she tries to discipline herself and her son into the repressed controlled ways of lower middle-class respectability.” Ushering in a triumvirate of gussied-up pigs to the wedding party of Carmine and his new bride, Magnani’s Mamma is introduced as a crude and voracious woman, a salt of the earth extrovert born from a crude and voracious world. Drunk or sober, she is an entertainer, comfortable center stage, breaking into an impromptu song with improvised insults and antagonistic insinuations, or holding court on illicit nocturnal sidewalks. She reacts in hearty cackles and redolent demonstrations, and she is utterly shameless, a captivating combination of arrogance and obliviousness.
Seen as a small child at this matrimonial reception (“One pimp dies and another is born” is the sleazy Carmine’s snide), baby Ettore is hoisted into the air by Mamma, who twirls him around in slow motion before the film cuts to the boy now grown, sitting listlessly on a carousel, as apt a metaphor as any for his bitterly inert reality. Ettore is already a budding thief, but there are scant traces of his enduring youthful innocence, revealed in his playful antics before a group of giggly girls and in his “oh mom” exasperation (as soon as they meet, she asks for a kiss then complains about her corn… all in front of his friends!). Mamma hopes a better class of company would do him good, but his newest associates are hardly that. Ettore is destined for distress and doomed to abandonment.
Before he descends into a predictable life of petty crime and the unhealthy atmosphere catches up with him, Ettore falls in with the twenty-something Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a dubious young woman contentedly settled on the wrong side of the tracks. In just one instance of her moralizing hypocrisy, and just one instance of her overriding maternal worry (the two are routinely one and the same), Mamma objects to the less-than-reputable seductress. Bruna has been around — that much is plainly stated, and she herself does little to hide her easy virtue — but there is something unique to the relationship between she and Ettore. There is certainly the carnal attraction (somewhat worse for wear, Bruna remains quite attractive), but there is also an affinity between their mutual lives of loneliness and desperation. There is also the unavoidable correlation between single parents Bruna and Mamma. Indeed, Ettore’s mother is the frequent subject of conversation, and her thorny reflex of jealously/concern flaunts Pasolini’s blatantly Oedipal interests. Mamma proclaims that the only woman Ettore needs at his age is his mother, and while later writhing in mortal agony, it is she to whom he calls out.
Pasolini adored his own mother, living with her until his tragically premature death, and such fidelity comes through in his tender treatment of Mamma. Though a lewd whore with a weakness for drink, she is almost charmingly ingenuous, as when she laughs at the notion that Ettore has ever been with a woman, or in the way she ardently strives in vain for social and economic betterment, even as her Roman dreams of stability are invariably shattered. There are undeniable steps forward, like when she attains occupational advancement in an open-air produce market, but more than anything, her guilelessly optimistic aspirations center around Ettore. She cooks up a blackmail scheme to get him a job working in a restaurant (Garofolo really was a waiter when Pasolini first saw him) and arranges for the boy to get laid (as mothers do). “You’d hang on the cross from him,” states Mamma’s streetwalking associate. “You bet I would,” she replies with a sincere, dire earnestness. The boy sometimes looks at her like she’s crazy, but it’s obvious she just wants his praise, love and gratitude. She is his mother, after all, loving and doting, expressing pride and anxiety. The compassion Magnani and Pasolini elicit from this affectionate portrait is manifestly sympathetic — she just tries so hard.
Still, Mamma also embodies the frequently unsettling contrasts and contradictions that appear throughout Pasolini’s work. She has sacrificed, yes, but she is also selfishness and reckless in her own right. She receives moments of gentleness and tranquility — riding with Ettore on his new motorcycle and teaching him to dance the tango like she is, or ever was, the belle of the ball — but twice Pasolini tracks with Mamma (in barely lit unbroken takes) as she boisterously sashays and rambles in pitch-black street sojourns. She instructs Ettore to speak properly, like her, then warns him that if he doesn’t, she’ll cuff him one. As he would often do, Pasolini imbues in Mamma Roma a range of conflicting images, concepts and actions, from the daringly juxtaposed close-up of a necklace with the Madonna and Child placed against Bruna’s heaving breasts, to the ambiguous behavior of the venal characters, as when Ettore is beaten before Bruna, who nevertheless leaves him behind to romp with his assailants. Pasolini incorporates painterly allusions and baroque compositions, evoking a kind of permanent intensity that borders on the sacred (Christian imagery was never far from this avowed atheist filmmaker), while at the same time, the fierceness and the vulgarity of the impoverished region results in a coarse synergy of character and location, with the destitution of the environment captured by his tenacious camera and mirrored on the faces of its citizenry.
Already a controversial figure as a result of his challenging and painfully insightful writing, Mamma Roma cemented Pasolini’s reputation as a potentially provocative man of the cinema. Facing condemnation for its depiction of reckless youth and national insolvency, a local law enforcement officer even went so far as to file a complaint regarding the film, stating it was “offensive to good morals” and “contrary to the community sense of morality because of obscene content, contrary to public decency.” Though the charges were eventually thrown out, it set the tone for his shocking work to come, from the hilariously sacrilegious La ricotta (1963) to the disturbing, perceptive, and outrageous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
For better or worse, Mamma Roma also had to contend with inevitable comparisons to its neorealist ancestry and Pasolini’s own striking debut, Accattone. Many saw his earlier feature as less contrived than its successor, and while it is comparatively unrefined, the Accattone debate is a largely subjective and essentially secondary matter. Mamma Roma’s relationship to Italy’s defining post-war cinematic movement, on the other hand, is far more prescient. It is, as Maurizio Viano puts it, both Pasolini’s “final tribute to, and rejection of, neorealism.” There is the actorly link of Magnani herself (and look for Bicycle Thieves’ Lamberto Maggiorani as a hospital patient from whom, ironically enough, Ettore tries to steal) and there persists what Enzo Siciliano calls a “brutal sentimentality.” A key difference, though, is in the scope of its narrative and thematic focus. Unlike Rome, Open City, which, as Viano notes, “touched and represented postwar Italian collective consciousness,” Mamma Roma is more internalized and localized than many of its neorealist precursors. It doesn’t so much speak for a vanquished nation at large, but rather exposes a confined, if broadly symbolic, milieu. Shot in stark black-and-white by the acclaimed cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, Mamma Roma is a lurid look at socioeconomic issues directly influenced by a burgeoning and volatile modernity: housing developments that are populated and isolated somewhere between the rural archaic and the urban contemporary, the cruelty and violence inherent in Italy’s idle youth and the intrinsic, inescapable despair residing in the Roman borgate and its inhabitants.
Less preoccupied by the perils of global catastrophe, Mamma Roma is more concerned with how one rises above one’s immediate condition, and like with Accattone, Pasolini theorizes on the hazardous nature of corresponding judgement. As Pasolini has argued, “Mamma Roma has an explicit, problematic morality of her own — however crude and primitive — that develops by degrees. In the beginning, there is the ‘mortal anguish’ that she shares with Accattone, a happiness without history… but there is already something in her of the other world, which is our bourgeois world, in other words, a petit-bourgeois ideal.” But there is conflict and confusion that arises from this disparity. The primary question posited by Mamma Roma is who bears the responsibility for what transpires? There has to be someone to blame, yet there isn’t an unambiguous villainy at work in this film; rather there is a multifaceted social malady that is both the cause and effect of rampant personal affliction. Whereas his script called for Mamma to exclaim at the end, “I responsabili! I responsabili!” (“The responsible! The responsible!), accusing the outside world for what occurs, Pasolini removes this outburst in favor of silent, frontal reflection. Before meeting with a priest, Pasolini says Mamma was “incapable of self-reflection,” but once she does, and after he tells her she must accept some accountability, she still struggles to weigh personal fault with the pervasive hopelessness that defines her surroundings. “It isn’t that Mamma is morally flawed,” writes Gary Indiana, “though Pasolini viewed her attempt to find a place in a rapidly changing society as an expression of moral decay, because of this new society’s consumerism and spiritual vacancy — she is socially doomed….” Throughout Mamma Roma, there is a silver lining in her love and devotion toward Ettore, but she resides under a rain cloud all the same.
According to Viano, Mamma Roma is, “A film shot in the language of poetry. Unlike neorealist films, where the poetry, if any, was inherent in the things being filmed, here it means the bivalent quality of the images, their capacity to openly express the vision of the author, who molds a character into being a perfect vehicle for his vision.” Pasolini may have considered the casting of Magnani a mistake, stating that “although [she] made a moving effort to do what I asked of her, the character simply did not emerge,” he did also acknowledge that she is “a great actress, and if I were to make Mamma Roma again, I would probably choose her.” Whatever his final verdict, the movie speaks for itself, and as the years have passed, the assessment of this extraordinary achievement has shifted. Today, it is justifiably regarded as one of the finest films from its iconoclastic director, second only to his masterpiece Salò, and it contains what is arguably the best performance by its incomparable leading lady.
Watch ‘Mamma Roma’ at FilmStruck.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.