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Novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, social critic, outspoken intellectual, committed Marxist and openly homosexual artist, Pier Paolo Pasolini was a controversial figure before he ever directed his first film. Cinema offered him new tools to create with and a wider audience to shock and scandalize. Many of his late films were indeed aggressively provocative the social satire Teorema , the ribald The Decameron  and The Canterbury Tales  and the explicit Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom , adapted from Marquis de Sade novel but his first film, the 1961 Accattone, drew from the tradition of the neo-realists for a drama set in the Roman borgate, the slums at the edges of the city.
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.
Pasolini was unhappy with Magnani's performance, which he made very public at the time of its release, but by 1969 he chalked it up to a mistake in casting. "As I choose actors for what they are and not what they pretend to be, I made a mistake about what the character really was, and although Anna Magnani made a moving effort to do what I asked of her, the character simply did not emerge." Perhaps not, but Magnani's brassy, full-blooded presence fills up the screen and the character that she brings to the film is a magnificent creation: fiery, bawdy, ambitious, fiercely devoted to Ettore and driven with guilt over her absence in Ettore's youth. When one of her friends observes, "You'd hang on a cross for him, wouldn't you?," you can't help but agree. But her attempt to make up those lost years by lavishing him with presents and refusing to discipline his increasingly arrogant and reckless behavior does nothing to strengthen his character or give him a future. For Pasolini, however, the problems go deeper: Mamma Roma has idealized her new station in life and her upward mobility. Her modern apartment is in an anonymous development on the edge of war ruins and empty fields and the boys of their new suburb that she favors over Ettore's old neighbors are just as aimless and unambitious, they just dress better. By film's end, Pasolini's gutter Madonna and Christ figures, as sullied and sinful as they are, have fulfilled their roles, right down to a symbolic crucifixion.
As with many of Pasolini's earlier works, including his first film, Mamma Roma was controversial for its portrait of life in the borgate. It was protested at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and censured in Italy for "offending against the common sense of decency," released only after a long legal battle. It was neither a commercial nor a critical hit when it was released in 1962 and was not even shown in the United States until 1988 (more than a decade after Pasolini's death), but its reputation has risen enormously in the years since. Janet Maslin, reviewing the film in a 1995 revival in the New York Times, wrote that it "seethes with the sensuality and dark iconoclasm that would mark Pasolini's subsequent career."
Producer: Alfredo Bini
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Art Direction: Flavio Mogherini
Film Editing: Nino Baragli
Cast: 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).
by Sean Axmaker