Mamma Roma plays on Turner Classic Movies over the weekend as part of the “TCM Imports” this month. I review the film, the second feature by Pier Paolo Pasolini – novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, social critic, outspoken intellectual, committed Marxist and openly homosexual artist – for the website.
For Mamma Roma , his sophomore feature, he cast a star in the lead, but otherwise continued his neo-realist practice of casting non-actors and exploring the lives of the lower classes. Anna Magnani is the Mamma Roma of the title, a middle-aged prostitute who has finally freed herself from her pimp, the slick and seedy Carmine (Franco Citti), and saved enough money to leave the borgate and buy an apartment and a stall in the produce market. Most importantly, she can reclaim her now teenage son, Ettore (played by Ettore Garofolo, who Pasolini discovered waiting tables at a restaurant), and take him back to Rome with her. Magnani plays Mamma Roma as an earthy, hearty woman who cracks lewd jokes through her pimp’s wedding reception (which is her independence day) and laughs without a trace of reserve. She aspires to middle class respectability, but her past hangs on through her outsized personality and brazen audacity. Ettore, meanwhile, is a surly lad who has been raised in her rural hometown, a backwater she disdains (“I didn’t raise my son to be a hick,” she proclaims). Suspicious and resentful of this mother who has suddenly swooped in to claim him, he’s content to hang with the local good for nothings, skipping classes and fooling around with the local tramp and living off Mamma’s guilt-driven generosity. Garofolo walks through the film with a numb sneer across his face, as if too guarded to let any other emotion but resentment out.
Like Pasolini’s Accattone, Mamma Roma draws from the neo-realist tradition, but Pasolini goes beyond the tradition to play with the form and structure. He leaves unanswered questions hanging throughout the film – who is Ettore’s father? Who raised him while she was working in Rome? – and leaps over the scenes you expect to see in more traditional films, giving the film an abrupt, jolting quality. Ettore drops out of school before we ever even see him attend class, and soon after Mamma Roma gushes over him in action as a waiter (a job she secured for him through blackmail!), he’s already quit to spend his days in indolence and petty crimes. Pasolini punctuates the drama with stream-of-consciousness monologues that Magnani’s Mamma delivers while revisiting the streets (and former clients) of her past life as a whore, venting aloud as people drift in and out of the scene and she power-walks around the square in the inky night. The life story she tells in these scenes only confuses her past and muddies the question of Ettore’s paternity. In one story, he’s Mamma Roma’s husband, a wanted man who was arrested at the wedding, leaving her “a virgin at the altar” (and if so, how could he be the father?). In another, he’s a man of sixty that her parents forced her to marry when she was only a teenager. Never mentioned but even more likely is her former pimp Carmine, who tracks her to her new apartment to extort money from her. His leverage is her hidden past, which he threatens to expose to Ettore. Her son is apparently the only person in Rome who doesn’t know of Mamma Roma.
Read the complete piece on TCM here.