May 27, 2010
Mamma Roma (1962)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Stars: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti

What it's about. To make some sense of Mamma Roma we have to first pay attention to its writer and director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was a communist, an atheist, and a homosexual. It is safe to say that he brought a non-conformist attitude to his films. Among his best-known efforts was a version of the Gospel according to Matthew. For a non-believer, he was influenced by, or perhaps even fascinated with, the culture of the Catholic Church.

Paolini was an adherent of the Vittorio De Sica theory of Italian cinema, which invoked realism through amateur actors playing working class characters similar to themselves, in naturalistic settings.

The film begins with our earthy heroine as a guest at a wedding, where she is adored by her working class relations and barely tolerated as a noisy interloper by those who do not know her. She does not come alone to the wedding. She brings a couple of grown pigs, presumably an act of insolence rather than a gift to the lucky couple.

The rest of the movie involves the middle aged Roma (Anna Magnani) and her teenaged son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Roma has apparently toiled as a prostitute for years, eventually earning enough money to buy a fruit stand license in Rome. Ettore has been off living on a farm and is unaware that his mother ever worked as a prostitute. Roma takes Ettore to Rome, and they live in a slum apartment although she promises they will be in a better place soon.

Ettore doesn't complain. He has an idle, indifferent nature, and soon takes up with local hooligans. He also has his first relationship with a woman, the attractive and pleasant but profligate Bruna (Silvana Corsini). Roma learns of this, and decides Bruna is too loose for her son, so she sends him to the house of hottie prostitute Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano). Roma also finds a waiter job for Ettore, but he tires of it and quits, getting in greater trouble than ever.

Meanwhile, Roma is plagued by her former pimp Carmine (Franco Citti), who demands that she work for him again. Apparently, calling the police to deal with Carmine is not even an option.

How others will see it. Many cinephiles are fascinated by Mamma Roma and its brassy lead actress. The movie was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but could not find a distributor in the United States, where it remained unavailable until the 1990s. The user ratings are high, especially among younger age groups. Women like it slightly more than do men, suggesting sympathy for the hard-working and vocal Mamma Roma.

How I felt about it. I had difficulty getting through this movie. Ettore is an empty vessel aside from a brief infatuation with Bruna, whose honor he briefly defends before learning another harsh lesson in life: going against the crowd will get you a beating. Roma claims to love her son beyond all else, but he would have been better off if he had left him where he was, on the farm. The only education he gets is what the street provides him.