The Golden Coach was the first of a loose trilogy of films made by Renoir following his return to Europe from America, where he had worked during the war. The theme of all three films (the others are French Cancan and Elena and Her Men) is Renoir's lifelong preoccupation with the ways in which the life of the theater mirrors that of the world beyond the proscenium arch, and in The Golden Coach this theme finds its most magnificent expression within the trilogy, and perhaps the most magnificent of any film. In this highly stylized and artificial world, the actors perform on- and off-stage, the viceroy and assorted nobility within the colonial government perform for their subjects and for one another, and the distinction between performance and life dissolves into a richly layered construction of artifice. The mechanics of the narrative click and whirl like clockwork, so that you're caught up in the dynamics of this deconstruction of reality with an ease that belies Renoir's supreme mastery. His drama builds gradually into theater - even the sets become more formalized - until, somewhere midway in the film, Camilla announces to her audience that act two has concluded; from that moment forward all the world is a stage.
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But a substantial part of the beauty of Mamma Roma is that you don't have to go deep to emerge from it satisfied. The premise of the film is universal: The title character (played by Anna Magnani) is reunited with her 16-year-old son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), who was raised by others (just who remains unclear). Hoping for a better life for him than she had, she aspires to better herself and to provide her son with opportunities in a post-war Italy that still struggles with the consequences of its defeat. The details with which Pasolini fills in this sketch are what made it the cause of a furor in its day: Mamma Roma is a prostitute, and her plans for bettering her son's life include such schemes as blackmailing a restaurant owner into hiring him. Mamma Roma is committed to her son like any mother, but, being a streetwise woman, her care extends to arranging for his deflowering in the bed of a fellow whore. She works hard to shed her streetwalking past - she even buys a stall from which to sell vegetables - but a love from her past (Ettore's father?) disrupts her life with some regularity, demanding money from her and sending her back into the night. And, most tragically, the gains she manages can be hard to discern amid the barren legacy of Fascism in which she lives - her new, "better" home looks much like her previous one - and Ettore himself begins to reject her, still stinging from her absence during his youth. Before long, he begins to decipher the clues offered him about his mother's livelihood, and he turns to crime.
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