Continuing the twelve-day Pier Paolo Pasolini exploration on October 23rd, Pasolini's second feature film, Mamma Roma (1962), was the target for the day. Just over two years ago, I saw Mamma Roma for the first time, and I was impressed by the pace and direction of the film, but it couldn't compare to Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which I had seen a few months before. One of my core motivations for making this twelve-day journey through Pasolini's work was to allow myself a chance to see and experience a progression in theme and style from the beginning of his directorial career to the end. Having seen Pasolini's debut film, Accattone (1961), the night before, I was able to better appreciate Mamma Roma for what it is: a film about people who can't escape their past. Compared to Accattone, Mamma Roma is much less messy and confrontational, but it still has its own degrees of filth and depravity (my favorite being a fly that enters the opening credits and walks over one of the title cards).
At the heart of Mamma Roma is its titular figure, a former-prostitute (Anna Magnani) who has earned her freedom after sixteen years of being pimped by Carmine (Franco Citti). Now that Mamma Roma is no longer obligated to walk the streets, she hopes to become a real mother to her teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Though they hardly know one another, Mamma Roma immediately takes on the role of protective mother – encouraging Ettore to make friends who go to class and study hard, and even planning to move to a nice part of Rome so that Ettore will have everything he needs to become an exceptional young man. Though this is all feasible for them, the first obstruction to this dream-life that Mamma Roma is hoping to transform into a reality is her past. Carmine's arrival at her apartment (only days after she was freed from his control), sends her back to the streets for ten more days so that she obtain enough money to get rid of Carmine forever. During all of this, Ettore is oblivious to his mom's history as a prostitute, and she hopes to keep it that way.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Mamma Roma is the way in which time passes. Pasolini plays with both narrative form and filmic devices to emphasize emotion. During Carmine's wedding in the opening scene of the film, everyone is seated at a long table with the bride and groom in the center (a composition that alludes to Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper). As time passes, Pasolini holds the wide shot composition and dissolves to the exact same composition to suggest that several minutes have passed by. In this wedding scene, Pasolini's first use of slow-motion is observed as well when Mamma Roma picks up a little boy and spins him around in her arms. This moment of slow-motion highlights Mamma Roma's maternal nature, but it's from Carmine's point of view after he says, "I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. One pimp dies, and another is born." One of the most significant jumps in time is when Mamma Roma is challenged by Carmine to return to prostitution for ten days, and Pasolini chooses to only show us her glorious return home on the tenth night. The camera tracks with her in a five minute uninterrupted take as she shouts and laughs with anyone who will listen.
Visually, Mamma Roma is a film that feels more "cinematic" in comparison to Accattone. Shot in widescreen, incorporating slow-motion, and using tracking and POV shots to great effect, Mamma Roma is a different kind of film than Accattone – regardless of their comparable outcomes. Set around the same rugged landscapes that Accattone roams, the film Mamma Roma is just as much about Mamma Roma as it is about her son, Ettore. Ettore, like Accattone, cannot escape the pressure to break the rules (even though he has a mother who will give and do anything for him). Perhaps much of Ettore's struggle is rooted in his mother's walk though. She can talk the talk of being a good mother, but she doesn't always walk the walk. Arranging for Ettore to have a night with one of her beautiful prostitute friends so that he'll stop sleeping with a girl that she doesn't approve of is all at once shocking, but totally comedic. She is a masterful manipulator, and her own nature to break the rules allows for her to bend the rules in her favor. This narrative divide between Ettore and Mamma Roma is one of the more problematic aspects of the film as it begins to lose a sense of direction. Much like Accattone, it's exciting to know that anything can happen, but much of Accattone's strength comes from its more narrow focus on a singular character's struggle.
Like Barbara Stanwyck in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), or more recently, Anne Dorval in Xavier Dolan's Mommy (2014), Mamma Roma is a flawed mother who does everything in her power to be the best example for her growing son, but she struggles. Much of the blame can't be put on Mamma Roma, as her son was going to act out anyway, but she takes the blame as a good mother should.
My rating: 4/5