Mamma Roma

In 2003, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien directed a film called Café Lumiere which was commissioned for the centennial of Yasujiro Ozu. In the film, Hou set about observing Japan that was 40 years removed from Ozu’s last observation, 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon. As one can imagine, countries, societies, culture, and tradition can radically change in four decade; but how about a decade-and-a-half? In 1962 it’s been seventeen years since Rossellini released his groundbreaking, wartime neorealism film, Rome, Open City, and Pier Paolo Pasolini has just released his second feature film, Mamma Romma, dedicated to Rossellini. One gets the sense that, like the Hou/Ozu, Café Lumiere/An Autumn Afternoon relationship, the Italy that Pasolini is observing isn’t quite the one that Rossellini had observed. However, for attentive viewers who are also are also aware of Rossellini’s films, there’s guaranteed to be many substantial connections between them.

Anna Magnani plays the titular Mamma Romma, an ex prostitute who is trying to start a new life after the marriage of her ex-pimp, Carmine. In doing so, she hopes to forge a better path for her 18-year-old son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), who has already fallen in with a bad “hick” crowd and taken to stealing from hospitals and sleeping with the town tramp, Bruna (Silvana Corsini). Romma, however, finds that the past isn’t so easy to escape as she is continually confronted by her ex-Johns, Carmine, and her friends, like Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano), who are still prostitutes. Romma is trying, though, and has taken up selling fruit and enrolling Ettore in school. Ettore, however, seems less willing to make something of himself and forge an honest life. The story itself seems to recall an early Pasolini work as a screenwriter, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Though Cabiria certainly takes on a more effervescent tone than Mamma Roma.

Ostensibly, the first obvious link between Mamma Romma and Rossellini, especially Rome, Open City, is Anna Magnani herself. Magnani has been praised perhaps more than any other Italian film actress, perhaps best encapsulated by historian Barry Monush who called her “the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema”. She was known for playing down-to-earth roles with an emotionally authenticity that fit the aesthetics of neorealism like a glove. But Rossellini’s Open City painted a picture of good-hearted, hard-working Italians who were transformed into tragic figures by the oppression of the Nazi occupation. There, Magnani was like a martyr, dying to protect her husband who was a resistance fighter. There is no such heroism in Mamma Romma, however. Pasolini’s Italy is a land of prostitutes, pimps, and thieves, people who don’t work for others but merely for themselves by taking from others. In that world, if Magnani still remains a tragic figure it’s due to her attempt at changing. But Pasolini’s pessimism won’t allow that, and his grittier, picaresque neorealism depicts Italy as a quicksand deathtrap in which you either submitted and survived by playing along, or perished by struggling to change.

John DiLeo perhaps nailed the greatness behind her acting when he wrote “Whenever Magnani laughs or cries… it’s as if you’ve never seen anyone laugh or cry before: has laughter ever been so burstingly joyful or tears so shatteringly sad?” Both Open City and Mamma Romma reveal that dynamic power of Magnani’s emotional acting superbly, with her tragic death in Open City being one of cinema’s most profoundly tragic moments, and her laughter in Mamma Romma echoing throughout the film as if it were bounding off mountains. But Magnani’s laughter in the film exists to cover up a deeper sadness and depression that is just under the surface, but which penetrates the downbeat atmosphere of the film. She’s certainly riveting here, giving a commanding and eternally believable performance as Romma. As often happens in films with outstanding actors and actresses, Magnani steals the show to such a degree that the film suffers when it moves away from her. Indeed, the film never succeeds as well with when Ettore becomes the focus.

While Ettore Garofolo’s performance can’t stand up to Magnani’s, and while Ettore as a character is less interesting than Romma, he probably gets the better storyline of the two. While both characters and stories are interrelated,—indeed, they spend a great deal of screen time with each other, perhaps most memorable in the tango sequence—Ettore’s generates more drama if only due to the fact that he faces a real, discernable conflict. Romma spends most of the film drifting from interaction to interaction with the people from her past, but with Ettore we get a much more well-defined sense of an internal conflict within his character between becoming a better, respectable person and continuing to hang out with his delinquent, “hick” friends and Bruna. However, it must be said that these two aspects of the film, Magnani’s Romma and Garofolo’s Ettore balance each other quite well, and it’s only fitting that Ettore acts as a catalyst for Romma’s actions and Magnani’s infectious display of emotional outbursts.

Pasolini’s direction here is most indicative of the neorealists, but Pasolini differed from his predecessors in many key ways. The first was his obsession with Christian art and symbolism. Within the film he visually recreates images of da Vinci’s Last Supper and Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Dead. That last recreation is especially haunting considering it comes at the film’s tragic climax. If the story recalls Fellini’s Cabiria, then its focus on Christian iconography seems more closely related to another Fellini film written by Pasolini, La Dolce Vita. The second difference was his use of non-professional actors that differed from his predecessors’ use of them. The original neorealists used them because they felt they were more real, but Pasolini preferred them because they were less real, and that artificiality would add an almost Brechtian layer of metafiction to the film. Pasolini also uses a single, recurring musical motif that consists of a classical, solo violin piece. If any element of the film just doesn’t work it’s this musical motif, which seems too sad to accompany the majority of the film, and by the time when it does seem appropriate at the end, its efficacy is nil because of overuse.

One final key similarity between Mamma Romma and Rossellini’s Open City is in their finale in which both feature the Dome of St. Peter. In Open City, the boys walk away from the priest’s execution, walking towards the “house of God”, adding a note of hope after the tragedy. Pasolini, however, seems to be using it in an ironically biting way, suggesting that the hope of Rossellini’s film has yet to be fulfilled. Even if Italy is free from the Nazi’s grasp, In their place is a country that’s full of people who simply don’t know how to lead good, productive lives, at least not at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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