Anna Magnani is Mamma Roma, a middle-aged prostitute who attempts to extricate herself from her sordid past for the sake of her son. Filmed in the great tradition of Italian neorealism, Mamma Roma offers an unflinching look at the struggle for survival in postwar Italy, and highlights director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s lifelong fascination with the marginalized and dispossessed. Though banned upon its release in Italy for obscenity, today Mamma Roma remains a classic, featuring a powerhouse performance by one of cinema’s greatest actresses and offering a glimpse at a country’s most controversial director in the process of finding his style.
PASOLINI, MAMMA ROMA, AND LA RICOTTA
BY GARY INDIANA
Indefatigably productive, ingenious, exasperating, narcissistically didactic, slyly self-promoting, abject, generous, exploitative, devoted to the wretched of the earth with honest fervor and deluded romanticism: Pier Paolo Pasolini can easily exhaust the adjective-prone, as man and artist, his person and his work riddled with contradictions.
He is unique to postwar Italian culture and politics, unique in his degree of loathing for its fifties and sixties economic miracle and its impact on the country’s cities, the countryside, and its dialect subcultures, unique in his nervous mingling of intense, alienated Catholicism with Gramscian Communism; in La ricotta, the words of his own poetry, spoken by the film director played by Orson Welles (which had, alas, to be dubbed in Italian by Gregorio Bassani), “I am a force out of the Past. Only in tradition do I find my love…” embody the contradictions that made Pasolini the most controversial and certainly the most persecuted Italian artist of his day. For this worshipper of vanishing times and values was the victim of the most entrenched prejudices surviving from the past. Embracing the stereotype of the noble peasant, he was hounded throughout his career by the homophobia and pious ignorance of peasants, and finally got murdered by one.
His entire output as an artist—poems, plays, films, novels, essays, and journalism—adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and it’s especially the films that seem hit-or-miss on the vertiginous level of Pasolini’s own ambition. Pasolini’s cinematic legacy is a jumble of brilliant moments and fizzles, a sprawl in which almost everything is interesting yet much of it reflects the hazards of both lyrical and experimental film.