It took more than thirty years for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second film, Mamma Roma, to arrive on American shores. Made in 1962, the film finally had its day in 1995 thanks to Martin Scorsese, our patron saint of forgotten cinema. The film made the art house circuit beginning at the Film Forum in New York and then made its way around the country. Why did it take so long? Well, it began when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival where the local police declared the film obscene. The film made its way around Europe, but met with the scissors from local censors snipping at what they considered objectionable material. Even after the critical and financial success of his third film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, both here and in Europe, there were no takers to bring his earlier work to these shores.
Had it been released here back in the early sixties, it certainly would have met with censor problems here too. The subject matter and fusion of sleazy sex and politics would have been too much for the guardians of purity. Add to that Pasolini’s somewhat rambling cinematic visual style, and you have a film that was maybe, just maybe, a little too sophisticated for the American palette of the day. Whatever the reason, it took three decades to finally arrive here.
The story is straightforward, Mamma Roma, a magnificent Anna Magnani, is an aging prostitute who has recently quit the profession. We first meet her at the wedding of her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti). This gave her the opportunity to quit hustling in the streets and build a new life with her teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garafolo), who grew up away from his mother in the country provinces. The boy has no idea about his mother’s past career. She moves both of them to the outskirts of Rome where she recently purchased an apartment in a better part of town to begin their new life. However, Ettore is not much interested in going to school or learning a profession, as a path toward a better life, as his mother plans. He spends most of his time with his friends, hanging out and getting mixed up in petty crime. He also has his first sexual experiences; first with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a local girl who appears to have had sex with just about every other boy in the neighborhood, and later with a prostitute friend (Luisa Orioli) of his mother’s. This second encounter is set up by his mother as a way to get Ettore away from Bruna who she considers a slut not worthy of her son. It gets worst when Carmine, who dumped his respectable country bred wife, reappears, demanding money from Roma, even if it means her having to return to her old profession. If she refuses he threatens to tell her son about her past.
Mamma Roma is a downbeat film about both the aspirations and pitfalls of upward mobility; filled with lost dreams of a better life and the high price that is sometimes paid. It’s not a perfect film. There are sequences that seem confusing. Jonathan Rosenbuam writes, “Mamma Roma is choppy and often somewhat disjointed as storytelling. The viewer is frequently confused about how much time has passed between sequences, and the dramatic confrontations that the story seems to demand and promise — such as a scene between mother and son after he discovers her prostitution — are often left out.” Pasolini seems to be leaving some dramatic situations out, letting the audience figure certain things out for themselves. Not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a film that make you work a bit. The final images of Ettore, strapped down, in a Christ like crucified position while being held in a hospital is shattering.
It was Anna Magnani’s desire to work with Pasolini, after seeing his first feature film, Accatone that sparked the collaboration between the actress and the filmmaker. Pasolini was a big admirer of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist films, especially, Open City (1945) which starred Magnani, so there was a mutual admiration. (1)
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Pasolini spent three weeks writing a vehicle for her, then began shooting almost immediately. What emerged from their encounter was not entirely satisfactory to either of them, but it remains a landmark in both their careers.”
Anna Magnani is overpowering. It’s easily one of her best performances in a career filled with amazingly strong work and the film is worth seeing just for her alone.
- Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune film critic wrote, Open City was Pasolini’s favorite film; one of his poems (from his earlier literary career) describes his intense emotion watching it. And allusions to Open City abound in Mamma Roma. There is another mother’s scream for her son, scenes of young males wandering the city, repeated views of a church dome (like the dome of St. Peter’s that dominates Open City’s unforgettable last shot). But the context is altered. Mamma Roma’s people are entrapped, not by Nazi occupation, but by crime and poverty. – – — Chicago Tribune May 19, 1995