A mother's touch

Anna Magnani dazzles in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1962 film, Mamma Roma

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Pier Paolo Pasolini dedicated Mamma Roma (1962) to Italian neorealist pioneer Roberto Rossellini

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FILM The Rome of Pier Paolo Pasolini's spirited second feature is that of the outer rings, the transitional borgata where ugly high-rise apartments interrupt wild grass and occasional industry. Pasolini, who lived for many years in such an outskirt with his mother, pointedly blurs development and ruin in his fluid camera observations of this liminal zone, much as he blurs the figure of mother and lover in Anna Magnani's titular heroine. Like Mildred Pierce, Mamma Roma wishes prosperity for her child at any cost. She moves him from what she deems a rural backwater to the borgata for a shot at a "decent life," which for her means selling vegetables rather than sex. Their new home is cruel in many ways, however. Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) slides toward delinquency, and soon an ex-lover presses Mamma Roma back into prostitution.

The basis of this mustachioed man's hold on the proud woman is unclear, but it's enough that we grasp the indentured terms of their relationship. The gaps in time and exposition feed the film's tonal volatility. Poignant coming-of-age scenes in the grass slide into Magnani's loud declamations, sociological analysis intermingles with passionate iconoclasm, all too brief glimpses of joy give way to degradation, and startling cuts between scenes set the whole thing aquiver. The basic dilemma is between critical detachment and confessional intimacy (the poet's taste in men ran to young street kids like Ettore, and he had a worshipful relationship with his own mother, going so far as to cast her as Mary in his 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Mamma Roma is a study of the Italian postwar landscape, to be sure, but one which extends to the realms of desire and emotion.

Much of this comes down to the casting of Magnani, then entering the twilight of her career after a successful stint in Hollywood (where she nabbed the 1955 Oscar for her role in The Rose Tattoo, written expressly for her by a smitten Tennessee Williams). Jean-Luc Godard also made a film about a prostitute with an actress named Anna in 1962 (Vivre Sa Vie), but whereas he needed to make an imaginative leap to place Mlle. Karina in film history (her character goes to see fellow Dane Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc), Magnani requires no such transference: her singular career thread the relative truths of neorealism and the Method. As Pasolini's chosen symbol of self-sacrifice and Rome itself, perhaps the signal reference is her death scene in Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945).

Pasolini documents an economic occupation rather than a military one, and the spiritual malaise that hangs over the picture is more diffuse than in Rossellini's picture. Nothing illustrates the director's bending neorealism so well as a pair of recessive tracking shots of Mamma Roma walking the night. The shots are underexposed so that the street lights appears abstracted and the men who emerge from darkness as ghosts — or is she the ghost, persisting in her monologues no matter who's listening? Done with a poverty of means, these sequences nonetheless conjure a kind of spiritual possession in the grip of material disgrace.

There are glimmers of Pasolini's later films in Mamma Roma (a stray mention of Dante's Circle of Shit flashing forward to his notorious 1975 movie, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), but its most significant innovation may lie in its yoking melodrama to a caustic modernist sensibility, thereby preparing a whole vein of art cinema later epitomized by R.W. Fassbinder. Mamma Roma's lessons may well have been absorbed, but it still looks tender and dire as ever. *

MAMMA ROMA

Thurs/2 and Sat/4, 7:30 p.m;

Sun/5, 2 p.m.; $6–$8

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