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MAMMA ROMA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Audio: Italian 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Short film La ricotta, interviews, Pasolini documentary, trailer, booklet
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2004

"Whatever you do to your mother will come back around to you."

Film *** 1/2

Pier Paolo Pasolini was without question among the most controversial of contemporary Italian directors.  An out-spoken, inflammatory filmmaker, Pasolini had been an established novelist, poet, and essayist before entering the film industry in 1954 to write screenplays.  Some of his early script collaborations included those for Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria and Bolognini's La Notte Brava.  Pasolini's own directorial debut, Accattone, came in 1961 and was an adaptation of his own 1959 novel, Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life).  The film was quintessential Pasolini, depicting the miserable squalor and grim existence of city life for the destitute Italian lower classes.  The novel and the film were even semi-autobiographical, drawing upon some of Pasolini's own memories of his troubled youth.

Pasolini's sophomoric effort, Mamma Roma (1962), again focused upon the common masses.  Its central character, Mamma Garofolo, was a prostitute whose desire to provide for her young son's future compelled her to alter her lifestyle, abandoning the night life for an honest profession.  Filmed in the neorealist tradition, Mamma Roma featured the legendary Italian actress Anna Magnani, who had also appeared in Rossellini's Open City, the first film to widely popularize Italian neorealism.  Pasolini was able to hone Magnini's explosive energy and theatrical flair into a focused and powerful performance for his story of a parent's love and sacrifice for her child.

Ettore Garofolo, who portrays the son, was in actuality a nonprofessional who Pasolini had spotted one day waiting tables.  Ettore uses his real name in his role as a typical Italian teenager, full of machismo, caught in the confusing transient years between childhood and full adulthood.

The film opens with a prologue at a countryside wedding reception.  We are introduced to the character of Mamma Roma, a rambunctious and loud woman.  She is occasionally rude-mouthed and freely expressive.  The wedding, we learn, is between Mamma's former lover/pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti), and a country girl.  It will mark Mamma's "freedom" and so she gives the union her blessings in her own spirited manner.  As the prologue closes, Mamma's young son, Ettore, appears briefly, engaging in an innocent dance with his mother.

The film then jumps sixteen years into the future, when we see Mamma returning to the countryside to retrieve her son.  We are never informed of the manner of Ettore's upbringing in the intervening years, nor do we learn of his father.  Nevertheless, Ettore accompanies his mother to his new home in Rome, where he is initially ill at ease.  While Mamma works respectably now as a vendor, Ettore eventually adapts to his new environs, though perhaps not in a manner approved by his mother.  He possesses a certain purity of character that is slowly corrupted by the unscrupulous friends he makes and the promiscuous women with whom he associates among the slums of  the city.  The revealed truth of his mother's past, and Carmine's reappearance, ultimately set in motion traumatic events that will lead to the film's melancholy conclusion.

Pasolini employs a great deal of religious allusions in Mamma Roma, and the character of Ettore may be seen, in a symbolic fashion, as one born of immaculate conception (the identity of Ettore's father, if there is one, is never revealed).  There is also a vague suggestion of Mamma's character as a contemporary representation of the Virgin Mary, with the added twist of Mamma's former profession creating an uncomfortable balance between a Madonna-and-Whore symbolism.  Even the film's raucous wedding reception is constructed in a manner reminiscent of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

Mamma Roma can thus be seen as a religious allegory in addition to being Pasolini's critical commentary of the Italian social hierarchy.  Pasolini was loathed of postwar Italian politics, which still contained remnants of the Fascism that he despised.  His films commonly featured a provincial "noble peasant" character, usually one that was eventually destroyed figuratively or literally by his exposure to the debauchery and moral decay of urban consumerism, as may be seen in Mamma Roma.

Mamma Roma was generally well-received, but Pasolini's strong religious views, which became progressively provocative in his subsequent directorial efforts, increasingly brought the ire of the Catholic Church upon the director.  Mamma Roma was even temporarily censured after causing a minor riot by neo-Fascist students at its Roman premiere.  Pasolini's next film, the infamous La ricotta episode from the film RoGoPaG, parodied the popular Hollywood Biblical epics of the day in a sort of Theater of the Absurd style, but its unflattering depiction of the Church resulted in condemnation of the director as well as a farcical trial for vulgarity and obscenity.  In fact, the degree of sex, violence, and anti-establishmentarian mentality in many of Pasolini's films often led to not-infrequent bans or distribution delays of those films.  While Mamma Roma is comparatively tame, Pasolini's later films, such as SalÚ or The Decameron, would push the limits of decency in cinema even by today's standards.

Pasolini was killed at a relatively young age in 1975, his death being perhaps every bit as graphic and outrageous as any of his films.  The director, having angered a young man, had been bludgeoned to death by the man and then run over by his own Alfa Romeo.  It was a gory and violent conclusion to a controversial life, but given Pasolini's views and out-spoken opinions, the outcome was an ironic though poetic close to a mercurial career.  Pasolini would probably not have had it any other way.

Video ***

Mamma Roma is presented in its original black & white 1.85:1 widescreen format.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive created from the restored original negative.  The restoration effort was a collaboration between Gruppo Mediaset and Il Centro Sperimentale per la Cinematografia Cineteca Nazionale.  For the most part, the film looks quite nice.  The black & white cinematography is sharp and detailed, and the print itself is fairly pristine with little in the way of scratches or dust marks.  Contrast levels are solid with no wash-out of the images.  I did not see any glaring compression defects, either.  All in all, this is a fine video presentation.

Audio ***

The film is presented in Italian monaural mastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack print.  Dialogue is crystal-clear, although it is entirely post-dubbed, as was the norm with most Italian films of this period.  The monophonic sound is understandably somewhat limited in range, but since the film is dialogue-driven, this is not really a problem.

Features ****

Mamma Roma arrives as a two-disc set from Criterion.  The film is located on disc one, which displays rotoscoped animated menus while the film's Vivaldi soundtrack plays in the background.  This disc also holds a trailer for the film and an art gallery with 52 photos.  The gallery contains posters for Mamma Roma as well as for RoGoPaG (1963), a religious compilation film featuring four short works by directors Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Gregoretti (the compilation's title is derived from the last names of the four directors).

Pasolini's contribution to RoGoPaG was the 35-minute short film La ricotta.  Included on disc two, this highly-controversial tale relates a day in the filming of a passion play about the crucifixion of Christ.  Somewhat light-hearted and mocking in tone, it focuses upon Stracci, an extra in the production's cast.  He plays one of the thieves to be crucified alongside Christ, and the film is essentially a long, running joke about Stracci's inability to find the time to eat his lunch.  La ricotta was shot mostly in black & white, with brief color sequences carefully composed to recall the paintings of Rosso Fiorentino or Jacopo Pontormo (such as "Descent from the Cross" from the Church of Santa Felicita in Florence).

La ricotta starts with a brief note from Pasolini proclaiming his devotion to Catholicism.  The film is even self-referential; Orson Welles (who has a role as the film's director) at one point recites lines from a Pasolini poem.  A copy of Mamma Roma is prominently displayed in the film. Welles's character is perhaps a thinly-disguised alter ego for Pasolini and allows the director to sprout some rather inflammatory remarks concerning Italy's petit bourgeois, the Church's "profound, secret, archaic Catholicism," and Italians in general ("the most illiterate masses....in Europe").  The actors in the production are mockeries of their religious namesakes - Magdalene dances a vulgar striptease, the Madonna is portrayed as an arrogant prima donna, and the Christ actor is a bit of a beatnik.  Hints of homoeroticism and sexual undercurrents also abound in the film.

Of course, La ricotta, although decidedly subversive, was not meant to be taken seriously, as is evident by an opening scene in which the actors dance the Twist during a break in filming.  A sped-up sequence in the middle of the film gives it a further decidedly comic tone, recalling the early silent comedies.  There is a talking dog, too!

Regardless of the satirical tone of the film, the Church did not take kindly to the film, particularly to the comments by the Welles character.  Movie audiences were understandably perplexed about the film as well, perhaps unsure how to interpret Welles's declaration that the average man was "a monster, a dangerous criminal,...a mediocrity."  For "insulting the religion of the state" with this short film, Pasolini was prosecuted and sentenced to prison (fortunately for the director, his conviction was later overturned).  Ironically, Pasolini's next film, which garnered favorable critic and public approval, would be an actual passion play about Christ, The Gospel According to St. Matthew!

Viewers interested in learning more about the life of this controversial director will want to check out Pier Paolo Pasolini, a 58-minute 1995 documentary included on the disc and covering the director's life and career.  The documentary contains numerous clips from Pasolini's films (warning: some of these clips are explicit) as well as footage of the director during production, in interviews, and in still photographs.  The documentary may not entirely elucidate the intriguing thought processes of the man behind such explicit films as The Canterbury Tales, Oedipus Rex, or SalÚ - The 120 Days of Sodom, but it does provide some insight into the personal beliefs or paradoxical views (his intense hatred of Fascism, his devout Catholicism, his latent homosexuality, his unresolved Oedipal complex, etc.) which combined to define this complex director.

Disc two also contains three brief interviews.  First is a 6-minute segment with director Bernardo Bertolucci, who served as an assistant director on Pasolini's Accattone.  Next is a 9-minute interview with Tonino Delli Colli, Pasolini's favorite cinematographer, who worked on the majority of Pasolini's fourteen films; the cinematographer discusses the influence of religious paintings, especially Mantegna's "Dead Christ," upon Mamma Roma.  The final 9-minute spot allows Enzo Siciliano, author of a biography on the director, an opportunity to discuss actress Anna Magnani's role in the film as well as the allusions and imageries, fashioned after Italian Mannerist paintings, used in Mamma Roma.

Finally, Criterion includes a very nice 30-page booklet containing numerous interviews, excerpts, and essays about Pasolini and his films.  An essay by Gary Indiana, film historian and author, discusses the history and background of Mamma Roma and La ricotta and their general impact on Pasolini's career.  There are several interviews between Pasolini and Oswald Stack, who also contributes an excerpt from his book Pasolini on Pasolini.  In these interviews, Pasolini expounds upon his views of the Italian social structure and universal themes in his films (death, religion, subproletarian life, etc.).  Lastly, an excerpt is provided from Enzo Siciliano's 1982 biography Pasolini, which discusses La ricotta.

TRIVIA BONUS:  Giorgio Bassani dubs the voice for Orson Welles in La ricotta.

Summary:

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an influential albeit controversial Italian filmmaker, and Mamma Roma remains one of his most thematically satisfying if somewhat poignant films.  Fans of contemporary Italian cinema will definitely want to check it out and especially the infamous La ricotta short film included with this release!