Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mamma Mia! Mamma Roma!

In early June, I caught Mamma Roma at the YBCA.

Mamma Roma starring Anna Magnani; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Italian with subtitles; (1962)

I added the Italian exclamation to the title because it sounds like something Anna Magnani would utter in the film. Ms. Magnani is like a force of nature in so many of her films - fiery, volcanic, passionate...she's the Mt. Vesuvius of Italian cinema. Sometimes it works and sometimes it seems like she is doing a parody of a loud and crass Italian woman. Fortunately in Mamma Roma, her character is a loud and crass Italian woman.

Magnani plays Mamma Roma; I don't think the character has a "real" name. Mamma Roma is a whore; not figuratively but literally. Technically, she is an ex-whore for part of the film but her pimp shows up and blackmails her into getting back into the life. Mamma Roma is not quite a hooker with a heart of gold. She shepherds some pigs into the pimp's wedding and engages in not-so-playful banter with the bride and groom at their wedding reception. She also plays a variation of the Murphy Game to get her son a legitimate job. All in all, Mamma Roma is trying to go legit for the sake of her mixed up teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garafolo).

Not content with getting him a job, Mamma intervenes in his love life (even setting him up with another whore) and tries to buy his love with a Vespa. Mamma is quite busy juggling manipulating her son, running her fruit stand by day and talking up potential johns at night. Magnani never goes for subtlety though. Mamma is a brassy woman.

Mamma Roma is anchored by three performances. Magnani as Mamma Roma, Franco Citti as the weaselly pimp (in a role very much like the one he played in Accattone!) and Garafolo as the mixed up son. The three of them propel Pasolini's plot while Pasolini pulls out all the stops in terms of blocking and camera angles. More than once, Mamma is shown recounting her life to various people in a continuous "walking and talking" tracking shot. The extended opening (with the pigs) is arresting for the imagery as well as the spectacle of Magnani's Mamma. In the end, Ettore, considered mentally unfit, is bound to a table in a Christlike pose which Pasolini shoots from various angles.

If I left it at that, Mamma Roma is highly recommended. However, Pasolini mixes in a lot more into the story. As I mentioned, Christian iconography is brought into play but Pasolini also seems to dabble with Greek mythology as Mamma's suffering and Ettore's fate seem more Bulfinch than Biblical. In keeping with the Greek mythology theme, Pasolini imbues Mamma with a rather sordid and Oedipal interest in her son's nascent sex life. I'm sure there were some Marxist imagery shown which escaped my bourgeois sensibilities.

What's left to say about Mamma Roma? It is Pasolini & Magnani after all so expectations are set high. Fortunately, Pasolini & Magnani easily clear the hurdle as I was engrossed in the film from start to finish. In fact, I'd like to see Mamma Roma a second time as I'm sure there are a number of threads I missed.

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