Few artists were able to stir the crowd the way Pier Paolo Pasolini did. The Italian artist from Bologna – who, when asked what people should label him (poet? filmmaker? novelist? revolutionary?), simply replied ‘writer’ as in the one who was put on this earth to chronicle the lives of others, the less fortunate ones, the oppressed and lonely – was a man despised and loved in equal measure, with fascists rallying at his film screenings and threatening violence, communists denouncing him and distancing themselves from his ideas, and people of all creeds and colors either recognizing their own reflections in his work or refusing to do so.
Pasolini, whose unsolved assassination in 1975 somehow defined the way he’d lived, emerged from the Italian neorealist movement and the school of Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, but soon learned to craft his own vision, incorporating various taboo subjects that went against the ideals of public morality in his work and growing more and more outspoken about the flaws of modern society. His last film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is now regarded as one of the finest examples of controversial filmmaking, and a painful cry for help on the part of an artist who was clearly feeling overwhelmed by the world he’d belonged to.
Yet, I find it odd how few people tend to look back and take notice of Pasolini’s perhaps most tender film in his body of work – Mamma Roma from 1962. At the time of its release the film was met with great disapproval given that it told the story of a mother who resorts to prostitution to protect her son from the dangers of street life. Starring the legendary Anna Magnani, Mamma Roma utilized several elements of the neorealist movement including the use of non-professional actors, on-location shooting and dialogue spoken in the local (Roman) dialect, but ultimately its exploration of the underbelly of Rome was deemed far too dark for the times.
However, unlike the majority of his later films which feature a persistent sense of fatalism, Mamma Roma still contains Pasolini’s warm belief in the trial and errors of common people. The characters that populate Mamma Roma are all desperately fighting to stay above water, with Anna Magnani’s protagonist refusing to let her only son follow in her footsteps.
In typical Pasolini fashion, the film opens with a wedding party that includes drunks, perverts and even two or three pigs roaming around the room, eating whatever lands on the cobblestone floor. Mamma Roma is present at the party: the man getting married is the man that used to be her pimp for many years (played by one of Pasolini’s regulars, Franco Citti). Mamma Roma is finally free and ready to embark on a new adventure by moving to the suburbs of Rome and organizing her own vegetable stand at the local market. Her days of standing by the side of the road and waving over potential clients are over, so she thinks.
Meanwhile, her son, Ettore, is an eager 16-year-old who wants to blend in with the rest of the crowd and make a name for himself. He dresses like an adult, puts on a serious expression and makes believe that he’s no stranger to women and other vices. But deep down, Ettore is still a kid at heart, and his sensitive nature, his empathetic outlook on life, start to clash with the environment surrounding him. Petty theft, violence and oppression are the daily bread of those that want to come out on top, and Ettore does not intend to fall behind.
On the other hand, the titular Mamma Roma knows of the dangers looming around each corner. She was married off to some old man when she was just 14 years old. She lived her whole life under the rule of men; men, who in order to feel better about themselves indulged in her suffering. Magnani’s beautifully worn down features work to depict Mamma Roma for who she is: a tired, good-hearted woman who never had the chance that she deserved. She’s been pushed around her whole life. For years, she’s learned to survive, not to live. Her mindset corresponds to the mindset of someone who doesn’t know whether they’ll make it through the day, or in Mamma Roma’s case – through the night. As a result of her fears, Mamma Roma loves her son to the extreme. In order to save him, she wants to fix his life for him. She wants to set him up to succeed, and not fall prey to the city’s moral decay. When a priest she consults for advice tells her, “You have to start from scratch with your son. Send him to school, teach him a profession,” Mamma Roma can’t help but shake her head. In her mind, she must grant her son a future filled with certainties, not question marks. She wants him to have everything at the drop of a hat because she knows that once you start from the bottom, you’ll likely stay there forever. When Ettore tries to convince her that life’s not as bad as she makes it out to be, Mamma Roma replies, “You don’t know yet what an awful place the world can be.“
Pasolini was always interested in the origin of human behavior, and the motivations behind our decisions that tend to reflect our inherent background. His realistic depiction of Jesus’ life in The Gospel According to St. Matthew that came out two years later, is in a way a continuation of Mamma Roma’s struggle. Like Jesus, she was born into a certain world and has her own cross to bear. Why? Because that’s what she was born into, that’s why. Simple, isn’t it?
When her former pimp pays her a visit and threatens to expose her dark past to her son, Mamma Roma is once again drawn to the world she had been running away from her whole life. She’s bound to this lifestyle, like everyone is. Like her pimp, who in a moment of weakness, says to her, “I didn’t want to be who I am. I didn’t want to be a pimp. You made me one. You ruined me.”
This vicious cycle of accusations is never going to end, argues Pasolini. In his mind, even pimps have souls. Their greed, their violence and hatred for women is once again something that they were born into. The world of Mamma Roma is a world of women who desperately fight back against male oppression, and men who fight in similar fashion against their own primal instincts. Ettore is one of them, and his fate unfortunately does not lie in the hands of Mamma Roma.
For a man whose mantra was, “I believe to give scandal is a duty, to be scandalized is a pleasure, and to refuse to be scandalized is moralism,” Mamma Roma is perhaps Pasolini at his warmest and most balanced. It is a portrait of a society that is tragically biting off its own tail, hopeless but not soulless. It is about people who learn to suffer, because suffering is at the root of everything in this world, according to Pasolini.
This is a film that serves as a document, to capture a world that up until then had been largely ignored. Gone were the days of Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. Italy was entering a new era and people were busy making money, indulging in individual pleasures. The past was in the past. The past was gone. But with Mamma Roma Pasolini confronts this notion, and argues that the past is the present, and so will be the future. The past is all we have, it defines us. There is no letting go of it. People will continue to make mistakes, and people like Mamma Roma will continue to walk this earth, carrying crosses on their backs for the sons they so dearly love. For the faith they will always hold.