directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
starring Anna Magnani and Ettore Garafolo
at the Brattle Theatre
The renowned Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was a man full of vitality, rebellion, creativity, and, very often, contradictions. His profound influence in Italian culture and politics reverberates still today, especially in the anthologies of his writings and films, critical studies of these works, and biographies which seem to appear annually in the United States. This year Americans have their first opportunity to see Pasolini's second feature film, "Mamma Roma," more than three decades after its 1962 Italian release.
Pasolini's insatiable appetite for art, literature, music, film and theory led him to devour the work of Giotto, Verdi, Genet, Marx and Rossellini without discrimination, absorbing their genius and using it as inspiration for his own paintings, poems, novels, and, finally, films. His volatile artistic energy took off in every direction.
Over the course of his 14 year film-making career, Pasolini created 22 major films and wrote numerous screenplays for other directors. His films range in style from the gritty, black-and-white, neo-realist-influenced "Accatone" (1961), to the mystical, comical "Hawks and Sparrows" (1966), to his mythical, often erotic version of "The Decameron" (1971), right up to the brutal, disturbing "Salo" (1975).
Pasolini did not even approach the world of film-making until he was nearly forty years old, already one of Italy's most respected poets. His overabundance of artistic activity and his need to express his many, often conflicting, cultural, artistic, and political points of view followed Pasolini throughout his life. They lead to the contradictions and ambiguities which permeated not only Pasolini's personal life, but also, it seems, his every work of art.
Pasolini's difficulty in reconciling his fervent Marxism with his profound sense of spirituality causes the foremost contradiction in his work and one of the few constants throughout his career. Disillusioned with the Communist Party and the Catholic Church, he criticized both. Yet even in criticizing them, he clung to them, commenting on them incessantly in his films. This central conflict generates much of the beauty of his neo-realist-inspired "Mamma Roma."
The film features one-time prostitute Mamma Roma (played by Anna Magnani, one of the most popular actresses of neo-realism, with whom Pasolini had ideological as well as artistic disputes, but who nonetheless plays exquisitely what she had called "the most important role I have played so far"). After her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti), marries a well-to-do lady from the countryside, Mamma Roma attempts to lead a respectable life, selling vegetables in an open air Roman market. More importantly, she brings her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), to Rome, with the hopes of providing him a good education and a job at a local restaurant.
At first, Mamma Roma succeeds in her attempt to raise her son in the petit-bourgeois world of Rome, rather than in the seedy world of Roman prostitution where she has spent her entire life. The height of her success is captured in a beautifully shot sequence where Ettore takes his mother out on the new motorcycle she has bought for him. The two speed through the streets of Rome, shouting excitedly to one another and laughing loudly atop the brand-new, shiny symbol of Mamma Roma's petit-bourgeois accomplishments.
As one might guess, given Pasolini's ideological stance and neorealist training, this happiness does not last long. After Carmine forces Mamma Roma back on the streets, Ettore falls in with a crowd of young delinquents. He quits school and his job and begins to steal, even from Mamma. This soon leads him to prison, as it leads the film to its tragic ending.
Were this just a story of disillusionment, of a woman's dreams shattered by the harsh realities of post-WWII Italy, "Mamma Roma" would be just another neo-realist film. Part of Pasolini's genius lies in his inability to rest in any one school or style. He has too much to say to remain only in the neo-realist genre, the genre most suited to his Marxist leanings. The film often seems torn between its clear Marxist stance and its religious overtones, as its many artistic influences and ideas blend together to create an omnipresent tension. Pasolini creates a sense of spiritualism, and even holiness, with references to art and music. Pasolini incorporates these references, unlike his neo-realist colleagues, as uniquely symbolic gestures.
His references to Dante, to Caravaggio (Pasolini once said that he wrote the script completely around the character of the real Ettore Garofolo, whom he saw one day carrying plates in a restaurant "just like a Caravaggio figure"), to Mantegna's "Cristo morto," to Vivaldi, whose religious music provides the backdrop for much of the film. This tension between Marxism and Catholicism, neorealism and symbolic references, is never overwhelming. It enhances each sequence, beautifying that which is most ugly, most tragic, or even most ordinary in a film determined to expose just these elements of Roman life.
Pasolini's violent murder in a Roman slum immortalized the artist. One critic referred to him as "St. Pier Paolo: Homosexual and Martyr," and most considered his final film, the bizarre and disturbing "Salo," strangely prophetic. It represents the enigmatic end of a tumultuous artistic career and, as Pasolini's 1959 novel proclaimed in its title, A Violent Life. "Mamma Roma" is far more typical than his last film, of the mix of politics and poetry, of ideology and of sentiment, which characterizes most of Pasolini's work. Its magnificent cinematography and superb acting make it a pleasure, not a torture, to watch.
"Mamma Roma" caps off a six week, 12-film Pasolini festival at the Brattle Theatre.