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.
Central to the film's success is Magnani's Mamma Roma. Both she and Pasolini were, for different reasons, dissatisfied with her performance, and explanations are offered in the interviews included in the two-disk set. But watching the film today it's impossible to understand what's not to like. Magnani (best known to American audiences for her Oscar-winning performance in 1955's The Rose Tattoo) is magnificent in the title role, developing utterly convincingly from a hilariously earthy bon vivant to a harried mother with aspirations to the bourgeoisie. Magnani wears her feelings nakedly; everything she feels is present in her face, voice, and boisterous, contagious laugh. As her son, Garofolo is a Neo-Realist gamble that pays off: The director wrote the piece around the handsome young man after spying him waiting tables, and his natural screen presence trumps his untrained performance.
At its heart, Mamma Roma is compelling melodrama told in a singular cinematic style. (The highlight of the film is a pair of long takes in which Magnani walks the nighttime streets of Rome, ranting about her condition in life and fabricating stories about her youth, while companions join her, keep stride for awhile, then fall away as others replace them. These are exhilarating, free-wheeling cinematic moments without close parallels anywhere.) The film is successful on this level, but for those interested there's much more here to explore. The Criterion edition includes, for instance, the short film La ricotta, a minor masterpiece released the year after Mamma Roma as part of the omnibus film RoGoPaG. In it, Orson Welles stars as a director helming a Technicolor costume piece about Christ's passion (the film is in black and white except when depicting the film-within-the-film), and the work proved so effective an attack on Italian society that Pasolini was actually sentenced to prison for having made it. A feature-length documentary by Ivo Barnabò Micheli details the director's career from his early work with Fellini and Rossellini, through his production of the unsettling and explosively controversial Salò, to his brutal murder, allegedly at the hands of a street hustler, in 1975. (Lacking is a discussion of this notorious murder; the crime sparked speculation that Pasolini was the victim of a political assassination, and Italy's yellow press made much of its more sordid aspects, emphasizing the director's homosexuality.) Interviews with others, including Bernardo Bertolucci, round out the set.
But the unique and engrossing feature film remains the best reason to plunge into the Mamma Rosa Criterion edition. Lovers of film will find in it a formidable entertainment. And scholars could conceivably keep themselves busy for years.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 18th January 1995
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Production compaines: Arco Film
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.9 / 10
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Producer: Alfredo Bini
Screenwriter: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Anna Magnani as Roma, Ettore Garofolo as Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti as Romolo, Silvana Corsini as Bruna, Luisa Loiano as Biancofiore, Paolo Volponi as le prêtre, Luciano Gonini as Zacaria, Vittorio La Paglia as Il signor Pellissier, Piero Morgia as Piero, Franco Ceccarelli as Carletto
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