Mamma Roma

Mamma Roma
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolin
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Stars: Anna Magnani (Mamma Roma), Ettore Garofolo (Ettore), Franco Citti (Carmine), Silvana Corsini (Bruna), Luisa Loiano (Biancofiore), Paolo Volponi (Priest), Luciano Gonini (Zacaria), Vittorio La Paglia (Il sig. Pellissier), Piero Morgia (Piero)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: Italy
Mamma Roma DVD
Mamma RomaMamma Roma was controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second film, and it has many similarities to his directorial debut, Accatone (1961), which told in neorealist fashion the downward-spiral story of a pimp living in Rome. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Pasolini had been a poet and novelist, and it shows in his skillful blending of tragedy and poetry, mixed with moments of dark humor and a genuine Marxist sympathy for the underclass. With Mamma Roma, he turned his attention to another lowly denizen at the bottom rungs of the social ladder, in this case a prostitute, but rather than charting her decline, he moves in the opposite direction by detailing her determined efforts to leave her sordid past behind as she works her way into the postwar Italian petit bourgeoisie.

Anna Magnani, who had had her breakthrough role 16 years earlier in the neorealist classic Rome Open City (1945), cuts an indelible figure as the titular Momma Roma, a big-hearted, boisterous, overwhelming middle-aged woman who has lived nearly her entire adult life as a prostitute. (If there is a flaw in her portrayal, it’s that we get little sense that her life on the streets has damaged her in any way, which makes her desire to move up in the world not as compelling.) When her pimp gets married in an opening scene that slyly parodies the Last Supper, she decides to move on in life. Dropping her street-walking past, she rents a small apartment in a modern housing complex on the outskirts of Rome and reclaims her teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), who has been living with relatives and has no idea that his mother is a prostitute.

Interestingly, at this point much of the film’s focus shifts to Ettore, as he navigates his new environment, falling in with a group of youths who appear on the outside to be the kind of upstanding young men with whom his mother wants him to identify, but are really little more than a street gang in respectable clothing. Ettore falls into petty crime, even as Momma Roma goes to great lengths to secure him a job working in a high-class restaurant. Ettore also falls for Bruna (Silvana Corsini), the neighborhood’s “easy” girl, which doesn’t go over well with his new friends.

Throughout Momma Roma, Pasolini strikes on the same themes over which he obsessed in virtually all of his films—namely death and sex. Even though Momma Roma is ostensibly a tale of upward mobility, of a member of the lower class scrapping and clawing her way into a level of social respectability, there is a pall of impending disaster that hangs over it. Momma Roma’s positive outlook and willingness to sacrifice anything to improve her lot in life ultimately turn out to be futile gestures in a ruthlessly stratified society. As a fervent Marxist, Pasolini was committed to a vision of the class system as a closed door, and Momma Roma and her rebellious son turn out to be case studies in the impossibility of breaking through to the other side.

Momma Roma is also very much about Italy itself (the inclusion of the word Roma in the main character’s name almost demands that she be read as an embodiment of the state of Italy in the postwar years, struggling to reassert itself after its disastrous defeat in World War II). Pasolini finds an elegant juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern in Momma Roma’s new building, which is large, square, and dully functional in its modernist aesthetic, and its placement next to an open field that bears traces of crumbling ancient ruins. The past is gone, but not entirely forgotten, and its remaining stones stand as a stark reminder that everything crumbles eventually, whether it be something material or ideological.

Beyond the thematic undercurrents, Momma Roma is a compelling story, even if its unambiguously bleak ending looms heavy even in moments that seem upbeat. Pasolini was an intellectual and an artist, someone committed wholeheartedly to his view of the world, even as that view shifted throughout the years, causing him to repudiate earlier works (after all, what is Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) but a graphic rejection of his earlier “Trilogy of Life” films?). In this sense, Momma Roma, although on the surface a neorealist film, repudiates the neorealist heart that insisted on the fundamentally positive nature of human endeavor even in the darkest of times. While not nearly as bleak as some of his films, Momma Roma nevertheless stands as one of Pasolini’s artfully despondent cries against the injustices of the world and the frequent inability of human beings, decent or not, to do anything about it.

Mamma Roma Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioItalian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsPoster gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, Tonino Delli Colli, and Enzo Siciliano
Pier Paolo Pasolini 58-min. documentary
La ricotta 35-min. short film directed by Pasolini
32-page booklet featuring excerpts from an interview with Pasolini and essays by critic Gary Indiana and Pasolini biographer Enzo Siciliano
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateJune 22, 2004

Momma Roma boasts a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original restored negative. The black-and-white image has strong contrast and good detail, and the MTI Digital Restoration System has removed virtually all instances of dirt and scratches for a clean, blemish-free image.

The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is dated, but sounds good for its age.

While there is no audio commentary, this two-disc set boasts a number of intriguing supplements that contextualize Momma Roma within the scope of Pasolini’s controversial filmmaking career. One would do well to start with Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ivo Barnabò Micheli’s 58-minute documentary about Pasolini’s life that was made in 1995, the 20th anniversary of his death. It features a number of interviews with Pasolini himself, as well as plenty of clips from his most important films. There is also a trio of new video interviews, one with famed director Bernardo Bertolucci, who began his career as an assistant to Pasolini; one with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who, after shooting 11 of his 14 films, knows Pasolini’s work as well as anyone; and finally one with Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini’s biographer, who also contributes an essay that appears in the 32-page insert booklet. A wonderful inclusion is Pasolini’s 35-minute short film La Ricotta, which was originally included in the film Ro.Go.Pa.G, which featured three other segments directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Roberto Rosseilli, and Ugo Gregoretti. It is a funny, self-reflexive, overtly political work about a Marxist director (Orson Welles) shooting a film about Christ’s passion. The transfer of La Terra is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but it looks a little rough. Also included in this set is the film’s original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery of poster art.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Intramovies S.r.l.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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