Mamma Roma Review
Mamma Roma was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second feature, receiving its premiere exactly one year to the day after his debut Accatone (both were introduced to the world via the Venice Film Festival). The two films make for easy companions, the earlier of the pair taking a pimp as its central focus whilst Mamma Roma shapes its narrative around a prostitute. Franco Citti, Accatone’s eponymous lead, also puts in an appearance once more, again playing a pimp, although this time it is much more of a supporting role. Meanwhile, the rough edges of Pasolini’s early style - a pronounced reliance on non-professional actors and location filming - as well as the more cinematic touches - occasionally audacious camerawork, the use of classical music (Bach in Accatone’s case, Vivaldi for Mamma Roma) - remain. The major difference is the presence of a genuine star amongst the mix, in this case Anna Magnani occupying the central role.
The appearance of Magnani is significant in a number of ways. Of course, Pasolini would go on to work with a number of professional actors - from Orson Welles to Tom Baker - whilst Citti was just one of his ‘discoveries’ to pursue a genuine career in the film industry (appearing, for example, in the Sicilian section of Coppola’s The Godfather). Yet Magnani was the first and this interaction between a performer with almost three decades’ experience in front of the camera and a director who, despite making only his second feature, already has an immediately identifiable style is an interesting one. Magnani had worked with neo-realists in the past, famously on Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City, but then she’d also turned in arguably her signature performance in the high drama of Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima. So how does she fit into Mamma Roma? Or, conversely, how does Pasolini adapt his film and style to accommodate Magnani?
It’s certainly true that Mamma Roma revolves around Magnani, although such is her screen presence both here and elsewhere that it would be a tough task for a film not to. The opening scene sets down the template - loud, crass, coarse - as our titular ageing whore gets drunk at her pimp’s wedding. In many ways this makes the perfect fit for Pasolini’s very particular take on the world: rough around the edges but also down to earth and honest enough not to shy away from the uglier elements. Yet Magnani’s character has aspirations beyond her current existence and dreams of escaping her life as a lowly prostitute. The teenage son she barely knows (played by Ettore Garofolo, here making his first appearance in front of a camera) serves as the catalyst, prompting a relocation to a classier part of Rome and new job selling vegetables. As such the poverty-stricken milieu of Accatone (filmed in the Pigneto area of Rome, also the setting for both Rome Open City and Bellissima) is moved on from, although arguably Mamma Roma can never quite escape its clutches.
Indeed, such an inability is the crux of the narrative. Whilst Magnani’s character may wish for a new life for both her son and herself, their coarseness continually come through. Their lives retain the traces of their pasts and so the son continues with his petty thievery and worse despite his mother’s best intentions. Of course, this mother-son relationship echoes that of the mother and daughter found in Bellissima, and no doubt Pasolini was fully aware of such parallels. His tale could easily match the melodrama of Visconti’s if it so required and yet, much like his characters, Pasolini has too many rough edges (at least during this early stage in his filmmaking career) to fully embrace the form. As such the presence of Magnani becomes a wink to Bellissima and a pointing up of the differences as much as the similarities to Mamma Roma. Likewise it nods towards the neo-realism of Rome Open City, another form which Pasolini acknowledges yet also makes his own. His vision is arguably both grittier and more lyrical; the bursts of Vivaldi at once transcending the down to earth nature and making the gritty realities all the more tangible such is its incongruous presence.
In many ways Mamma Roma is a showcase for both Pasolini and Magnani - expertly demonstrated by two audacious travelling single-takes in which she delivers lengthy monologues to various passers-by. For Magnani it would be essentially her last; following Mamma Roma she would make only three more appearances onscreen, none of which provided a role of similar depth (although she would earn a Golden Globe nomination for her final performance in The Secret of Santa Vittoria). For Pasolini it marked the end of this stage in his career; the rough edges that occupied his novels and first two features would give way, in his next film, to Orson Welles and colour (although it retained Garofolo), whilst subsequent works, despite holding on to various methods and ideas, branched off into a variety of diverse themes, encompassing both The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Theorem, both Medea and Salò. Yet Mamma Roma remains a key work and a remarkable film, undiminished by age and the turns Pasolini would later take.
Mamma Roma has been released onto Region 0 DVD in the UK by Mr. Bongo. As with their other recent Italian discs, The Grim Reaper and Il Posto, it has been sourced from a fine looking print and as such has a generally fine presentation. It is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (much like the existing Criterion Collection disc), anamorphically enhanced, and retains the original mono soundtrack. The image quality is more than acceptable with little sign of dirt or damage and good contrast levels. At times the blacks can be a little ‘inky’ with a resultant loss of detail, plus there are instances of edge enhancement, but nothing that should distract the viewer too much. The soundtrack is similarly clean with few discernible flaws. Unlike the Criterion release, however, there are no extras, simply a sober menu screen and optional English subtitles.