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Mamma Roma

Mamma Roma(1990)

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A tantalizing by-product of the Italian neorealist movement, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma goes a long way to explaining how someone could go from directing the gritty-but-reverent The Gospel According to St. Matthew to the austere philosophical games of Teorema and its more extreme successors in the 1970s. Often overshadowed in his day by the more user-friendly Fellini and Bertolucci, Pasolini has steadily developed a more devoted following with each passing year; fortunately, Criterion's extensive two-disc set offers a solid basis to tie together the director's unique blend of politics, sex, religion, and bawdy humor. Like many of his contemporaries in Italy and France, Pasolini's salad days as a writer formed a solid basis in his cinematic education, giving him an expressive voice for both ideas and visual style.

One of the pioneering neorealist films, Luchino Visconti's Ossessione was an uncredited adaptation of hardboiled writer James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and, despite tremendous legal woes, influenced an entire generation of directors. Taking a page from Visconti, Pasolini opted for a storyline strongly indebted to Cain's Mildred Pierce (switching the child's gender to avoid another legal spat) as well as Hollywood "sacrificial parents and children" soapers like Stella Dallas and Imitation of Life. Of course, content and context are hardly the same thing, and this kitchen-sink realist take on familiar territory soars far above the limitations of its timeworn narrative. Established star Anna Magnani deglamorizes herself as the title character (obviously a symbol for the struggling capital of Italy itself), a former prostitute trying to make good as a street vendor in the big city. Looking forward to a brighter future, she retains custody of her country-bred son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), whose southern-bred manners and lack of education prove disastrous for both parties. He robs, lies, cavorts with "bad kids," and draws the attention of his mother's old pimp, who uses Ettore's ignorance of his mother's past as a tool for blackmail. Not surprisingly, all does not end happily ever after.

Shot immediately after Pasolini's first film, the more traditional Accattone, this film was the last major vehicle for the beautiful Magnani, who made her name with such projects as Open City and Hollywood crossover attempts like The Rose Tattoo. Criterion's extras indicate some tension between the director and star over attempts to make her look more homely, which might explain why Pasolini opted for the more pliable Silvana Mangano for his subsequent projects. Regardless, she turns in an effective performance among a cast of real street people (later looped in the studio, as per the usual Italian industry practice). Often seen in muddy prints, the film benefits tremendously from a digitally cleansed transfer that shows more gloss in the visual style than may have been originally intended. Busy cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (who also shot key Sergio Leone and Fellini projects) was already a Pasolini regular and appears for a wonderful video interview in which he discusses their professional partnership. Other interview subjects include Enzo Siciliano and Bernardo Bertolucci, who discuss Pasolini's work ethic at the time and the film's place in the Italian classic pantheon.

The other extras are extensive enough to easily justify the inclusion of a second disc. The 1995 documentary Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of numerous contemporary studies of the director; though nowhere near the watershed 1981 documentary, Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die, it's a useful introduction to Pasolini but doesn't go particularly deep into his complex political and sexual circumstances, not to mention his still-controversial murder.

One year after Mamma Roma, Pasolini contributed a half-hour short, "La ricotta," to the film RoGoPaG. European anthology films were all the rage at the time (see Spirits of the Dead and Boccaccio `70 for more well-known examples), and this segment is presented in its entirety. Significantly better than Pasolini's slight entry in the later anthology, The Witches, this outrageous vignette featuring Orson Welles concerns an actor in a chaotic film about Christ's crucifixion who finds himself learning about selfishness and sacrifice under the least comfortable circumstances imaginable. An amusing precursor to the Catholic Pasolini's tweaking of organized religion and mass psychology in The Decameron, this is essential viewing and makes the absence of the complete film on DVD a bit more bearable. (Incidentally, the title is an anagram from portions of the last names of each director, also including Godard and Rossellini). Other extras include the theatrical trailer, a promotional art gallery, and a notes by critic Gary Indiana.

For more information about Mamma Roma, visit Criterion Collection. To order Mamma Romma, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson