This is The Pasolini Project, a monthly discussion series from Adrianna Gober and Doug Tilley delving into a vast body of work that, until relatively recently, had not been widely available on home video: the films of director, poet, journalist, and philosopher, Pier Paolo Pasolini. We’ll be exploring Pasolini’s filmography in chronological order, taking occasional detours through his staggeringly extensive artistic efforts outside of film, as well as the work of his collaborators and other related media.
For Part Two of our deep dive into all things Pasolini, we’re packing our bags and heading to Rome for a look at Pasolini’s second feature-length film, the 1962 drama Mamma Roma. For Part 1 in the series, click here.
Caution: the following discussion contains spoilers.
Set against the backdrop of post-war Italy, Mamma Roma features Anna Magnani in a tour-de-force performance as the titular Mamma Roma, a middle-aged prostitute working to distance herself from life on the streets for the sake of her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). When Ettore’s rebelliousness and the return of an unwelcome figure from Mamma Roma’s past complicate her efforts to establish a new life, conflicts come to a head with tragic consequences.
DT: So, let’s talk about Mamma Roma from 1962, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. This is a horribly depressing movie. And I don’t mean to say it’s a horrible, depressing movie — it certainly isn’t — but this is a movie which sets up a character, Mamma Roma, who is filled with life and she laughs, and she enjoys life, and even though she has this background that some might see as somewhat lascivious, she has a direction she wants to go in, and this is her whole focus. She has made this plan for herself that she’s going to gain enough money that she can buy this apartment, she can take her son back with her, she can open up this vegetable stall where she can make an honest living, and she will raise her son in this better environment and he will be something more of himself than she is. But whether it’s fate, whether it’s the realities of the economic circumstances that she came from and her son is in, that’s just not going to happen. That’s not the real direction that the world has for them and fighting against that is what leads to all of these tragic events. She continuously has to go backwards; she’s continually forced back onto the street. Even when she’s not forced into that, when she turns to her prostitute friend to help her and she does the blackmail, it’s almost like this is so much a part of her that escape is impossible.
AG: Right, and Ettore even winds up kind of martyred in the name of maintaining the status quo.
DT: Absolutely. It’s a very strange portrayal, Ettore’s character. He’s a brat, he’s a jerk, but he’s also shown to have a certain sensitivity to him, because he’s a young man who was abandoned by his mother — the suggestion is maybe for almost the entirety of his life. At the very least, she notes how much he’s grown when she sees him again. So, he’s been abandoned, he’s brought to this new place where he doesn’t know anyone, he’s trying to adjust and make friends, he finds this young woman who shows him affection, but also — boy, there’s so many echoes of Pasolini’s end in these movies.
AG: I know, it’s eerie.
DT: It really is eerie. There’s a part where he’s beaten up by his friends because he went to take a little walk with Bruna. They’ve decided they wanted to come along, and when he says he’d prefer that they wouldn’t, in his usual, aggressive manner, they beat the living shit out of him and just leave him. And she kind of….look, Bruna is a very interesting character here, but she isn’t always presented as sympathetically as Mamma Roma is. Though, there’s at least some suggestion that she’s like a younger version of what Mamma Roma is, right? She still has that capacity to care, but we talked before that in some of these Pasolini films, that mother/whore thing comes up again and again. But the prostitutes in this movie are shown fairly affectionately as well. It really is a movie of contradictions.
AG: Yeah, but just to defend Bruna for a second, she is surrounded by a group of men [in that moment]. It’s not like she could have easily, readily defended herself and Ettore from them.
AG: Her leaving him behind seems on the surface very selfish and cruel but it could also be read as a self-preservation tactic.
DT: And by walking away, she saved him from more violence as well.
AG: Right. There’s something else about that scene I found interesting: at one point, when Ettore was being taunted, he screams back, “you’d never act like this if you were alone!” Which I thought was a really interesting line, because it cuts right into the bullshit macho posturing that young men and even some older men think they have to do when they’re around other men.
DT: I also like that these incidents…. when Ettore is introduced, we see him accusing one of his friends of stealing his cigarettes and he’s smelling their breath to see which one may have done it. These conflicts happen all the time, but they don’t have any lasting effects on the relationships between these young men. They can’t keep any lasting, negative feelings, because who else are they going to hang out with?
This film is very much a companion piece to Accattone. It is about the same sort of people, though in this case, a female side with Mamma Roma herself, a youth side with Ettore, it’s a different kind of category, but the same strata of people. It kind of plays like a fish-out-of-water, country mouse/city mouse kind of thing, except this is basically people moving from poverty to slightly higher levels of poverty. The whole idea from the beginning is that Mamma Roma wants to bring Ettore from where he’s living to a nicer house or apartment that he’s going to be staying in, but it’s nominally nicer, right? It’s still surrounded by bombed out locations where they seem to be spending most of their time.
AG: Right. But relatively speaking, it’s better than sleeping in the dirt with the chickens.
One thing I wanted to talk about is that the religious symbolism is so much more heavy-handed in Mamma Roma than it is in Accattone. The movie is bookended by very obvious allusions to famous works of art; right off that bat, in the opening sequence, you have the wedding banquet with the tables and the guests fashioned in a way that is very reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper mural painting, and then at the end of the film, Ettore is laid out on the slab in a Jesus Christ pose which evokes The Lamentation of Christ, by Andrea Mantegna. There have been a lot of paintings depicting the lamentation, but it’s this one specifically that I think Pasolini was reconstructing here. If you look at it, it’s super obvious.
DT: You’re absolutely right, and the religious significance — not only is it more obvious in the imagery, but even in some of the dialogue. In that opening sequence, you even see Carmine crossing himself and of course, she visits the priest in one of the most interesting sequences in the entire movie, trying to get some advice on how to keep Ettore on the straight and narrow, and the priest’s advice is basically that you kind of have to start from the bottom and work your way up. He suggests that Ettore goes back to school, and Mamma Roma’s whole thing is that she can’t start from the bottom anymore; she’s been at the bottom for so long, she’s worked so hard to great where she is, that the very idea of working backwards — even when the priest suggests that Ettore could be a laborer and could work from there — she thinks of that as below the status she has aimed for herself, and that he deserves something better, and when the priest couldn’t help her, again, she goes back into that kind of bag of tricks, so to speak, in order to find a way to get Ettore what she thinks he needs.
AG: Yeah, totally. And as I was watching, I kept thinking of the figure of Mary Magdalene. I definitely saw a lot of that in how Mamma Roma is depicted; specifically, the loyalty and devotion, but of course they’re also both tragic, underestimated figures maligned for their shared profession. But I could easily picture Mamma Roma being the last person grieving at Ettore’s crude deathbed, long after everyone else wanders away, as Mary Magdalene did for Christ.
DT: Focusing a little on Mamma Roma for a moment, Mamma Roma is played by Anna Magnani, who is considered by some to be maybe the greatest female actor in Italian history. She worked with basically every major neorealist director at the time and even went to Hollywood in the ‘50s. She’s a world-famous actress, but she’s also an actress —- which is quite at odds with the sort of acting we saw in Accattone, where everyone was very natural because they weren’t actors. They were basically taken off the street because of how they looked and because of their attitude. Apparently, Pasolini and Magnani had a contentious view of this movie for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons was that she was giving a performance, while everyone else was being as natural as they could be, and I was wondering what your take was on her performance; what do you think of the Mamma Roma character as portrayed by Anna Magnani? Because she is the center of the movie, and its namesake.
AG: Well, I think there’s definitely an aspect of melodrama to her performance that isn’t necessarily mirrored by other people in the film, but I think it works. Mamma Roma is a character who feels very deeply about things, especially when it comes to her son, and the intensity of her performance and presence really reinforces that, and it’s amplified further by the way the camera focuses so much on her very expressive face. At any rate, I can’t imagine somebody else in this role.
DT: I think that’s it, right? It is a heightened performance and it’s not quite as natural as these other characters, but because of the character that she’s playing….she’s introduced as this bombastic, laughing, joking character who is the center of attention —- that’s a believable character for her to be because of the lifestyle she’s had and the life that she’s led. She’s a force of nature, and it’s a necessity that she’s a force of nature because she’s basically trying to control the fates of herself and her son by being this one-woman powerhouse, and she seems to feel every emotion so strongly, whether it be anger, or sadness, or humor. This is a case where when she is on screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off of her. But you can see how if you as a director were looking for much more naturalistic performances that this one might be at odds with so much of what the rest of the movie is, but it also seems like you can’t do the movie without a performance like this. The reason it works is because of her.
AG: Right. I think I read something about how, despite the fact that Magnani and Pasolini butted heads a lot while they were making this film, Pasolini apparently said that if he could go back and do it all over again, he wouldn’t choose another actress.
DT: [laughs] That’s right, he would still cast her. I think even he realized that there was just no other way to do it.
Now, speaking of performances, we talked about Franco Citti, who plays Carmine, when we were discussing Accattone, and he’s playing a similar character here, just a slightly less sympathetic version. Still a pimp. It’s one of those characters where if the movie was entirely about him, he might actually be a little more sympathetic, but we only see him as a complete piece of garbage smacking around Mamma Roma and basically forcing her back into this lifestyle she’s trying to escape. But I wanted to get your thoughts on Ettore — played by Ettore Garofolo. He had a fairly short career, and died pretty young at the age of 53 in 1999. He has a very distinctive look here. He’s kind of Micky Dolenz-esque.
AG: He does look like Micky Dolenz! I thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
DT: He looks like Micky Dolenz crossed with the lead singer of Sum 41, which is — boy, an uncool combination. But Ettore — when I started this movie, and so much of the first act focuses on Mamma Roma, I was surprised when the movie took more of a turn towards Ettore, who really is the core of the rest of the movie. It just keeps returning to Mamma Roma, who’s trying to manipulate his fate. But what did you think of his performance? Because obviously, he was not a trained actor before this.
AG: Yeah, if I remember correctly, Pasolini saw him in a restaurant —-
DT: Yeah, as a waiter —
AG: —- and thought, “he has the look.” Well, first of all, I think he’s adorable.
DT: With his oversized coat.
AG: Yeah, and he makes these little scowling faces. I think for somebody who was not an actor, he carries the film capably. I guess this might just be because he was a teenager at the time and not very far removed from his character in terms of age, but he does a really good job conveying the mercurial nature of a teenager. He bounces from, as you mentioned earlier, super bratty to earnest and vulnerable, but he also has this sort of braggadocio going on. He wants to impress Bruna and he wants to show off in front of his friends, and I found it to be a very authentic, believable performance. At no point did I think, “this kid doesn’t know what he’s doing [as an actor].”
DT: The sequences with him and Bruna I think are the most revealing about him as a character. Because, you’re right, he is trying to impress her, but it’s also…..Bruna, when she’s introduced, she’s playing with a young baby, presumably her own, and the next time we see her, we find out that the baby has taken ill and it looks like it’s going to die. Ettore isn’t sympathetic, I think he says something like, “It’s so young, it doesn’t even know that it’s dying.” That is very kind of reflective of what his character is. He talks a little bit later about learning bird calls, and the reason he did is because he used to steal nests and kill the birds. He has a rough edge to him because of the kind of life he’s led up to this point, where it’s kind of hard to get a read on what kind of emotional connections he can even make with people. But he does at least admit that he knows he loves his mother because he would feel bad if she died, which is such a simplistic way to look at how emotions work, but it’s not that he’s robotic, necessarily, it’s that he’s been hardened by his upbringing, and I think that’s true of a lot of the character in this movie; they’re products of their lives, they’re products of what their experiences were, and when you try to move away from that, the natural world hits you back onto that original track.
AG: I think Pasolini’s obsession with death comes out a lot through Ettore as well in how he relates so many things to death. That scene with Bruna where he makes that comment about the baby, just before that he says that he was sick and dying as a child, so he knows from experience that death isn’t a big deal and he knows the baby won’t be aware that its dying; it seems callous on the surface, but it isn’t intended to be. Quite the opposite, it’s his attempt at being comforting, and it underscores this matter of fact view of death that he has.
DT: When he starts talking about death in that scene, I’m like, I know how this is going to end, and it’s not going to be happy for anybody.
AG: Also, there’s that moment where one of the street kids is showing off this skull trinket dangling from his belt, and it looks cool, first of all, but it also works on a symbolic level as this grim omen of what’s to come — you know, the skull as a symbol of death, and he’s having this exchange with Ettore specifically, so you know, OK, this is some important symbolism we’re supposed to pick up on here!
DT: Another thing is that this was Pasolini’s second film, but in terms of his confidence as a filmmaker, you kind of see it on display here, but you can see it still has that roughness around the edges, and almost — I’m not gonna say playfulness, because that’s not the right word — but sometimes it feels like Pasolini is fucking with us as the audience.
AG: Yeah. A great example of that is the fact that major plot developments happen entirely off-screen. He makes us do the work of filling in those narrative blanks, though not in a way that comes across as lazy or clumsy. It’s more of a challenge for us to really engage with the narrative closely.
DT: I mean, the whole movie is designed around Mamma Roma desperate to keep the fact that she’s been a prostitute and is still working as a prostitute away from her son. The reason, basically, that she is acting as a prostitute is that the alternative is that Carmine will tell Ettore about her past, and so she goes back on the street. And when he finds out about it from Bruna, very off-handedly, it happens off screen! We never actually see it happen! It’s so at odds with how every other filmmaker would play this out, that it’s almost fascinating of itself, it makes the movie that much more interesting, because it’s like: “you are not being given the satisfaction of these incredibly dramatic sequences.” And in fact, the big drama is left for the very end of the movie for the most part, those big dramatic moments. And when those actually happen, they’re almost overplayed, what with the religious symbolism and Mamma Roma’s reaction to her son’s death. That melodrama is so much stronger than it is anywhere else in the movie.
It is an odd movie in a lot of ways, which is par for the course for anyone who’s watched the work of Pasolini, but similarly to Accattone, it has two bravura sequences that occur that kind of mirror each other. They feature Mamma Roma herself after a night of working as a prostitute, walking this strip of road towards the camera while she’s surrounded by darkness and these characters kind of come in and out, and she talks with them briefly while just walking towards the camera, and then they just wander back off into the darkness. It’s in no way realistic, but it’s incredible, particularly because of how both the sequences are played. During the first one, she’s overjoyed, she’s basically saying goodbye to this life and moving on, and she’s laughing, and she might be a little drunk, but she’s really happy to be saying goodbye because her life is going in the direction she wants it to go. Then, later on, when she’s been forced back onto the streets, she’s horribly depressed and she’s turning people away from her, and she even complains about being drunk. They’re both really amazing sequences in the movie, and I think those are the scenes where Anna Magnani really shines as an actress, because that’s a hard bit of acting where you have to go through that emotional range, encounter all of these different people, and just kind of be so focused on what that character is at that moment.
AG: Right, I completely agree, and again, if Pasolini had found a non-actor to play that character, would those scenes carry the same emotional resonance? I don’t know. Magnani brings so much warmth and personality and vulnerability to her performance, though, that it’s very difficult to imagine significant elements of this movie working as well as they do without her involvement or the nuances she brings to the character.
As an aside, I was just thinking: we know that Pasolini has this view of the subproletarian, urban poor as inherently more noble than other groups in the class hierarchy, and in the context of this movie, I kind of wonder whether he was punishing his characters for having bourgeois aspirations.
DT: Absolutely! I think that’s pretty clearly a subtext in the movie, and I think it was one of the reasons Anna Magnani and Pasolini butted heads a little, because she was from the upper class. So, the idea that she makes her character — any aspiration for bettering herself class-wise and socially, she’s really punished for even trying to do that, because it’s almost seen in the context of the movie as a betrayal of her people, of her lifestyle. So you can see how [Magnani would] be like, “what are you trying to say about me? What are you thinking about me?” Pasolini was a radical thinker and a radical communist, and you can see how that plays into the material that we see here. But it’s so at odds with the kind of filmmaking that if you’re used to Western-style — especially American filmmaking — the idea of a character aspiring to be better than they are and being punished for that seems to be completely at odds with the American Dream-esque —
AG: American Exceptionalism —-
DT: — that we see in so many movies.
AG: It does make me wonder how the average American movie-goer would view Pasolini’s work, especially his earlier work that was much more focused on the underclass, the revolutionary potential of the subproletariat and their humility and authenticity, which as you said, is very much at odds with not only how Americans are socialized to view the poor, but also with American values in a broader sense. So much of our culture is aspirational.
DT: It’s an interesting question because, I think Mamma Roma works as a narrative and as a dramatic work a little bit better than Accattone does. I don’t think you have to be as concerned with those aspects in order to be able to appreciate the dramatic elements of this movie, even if you might be a little bit confused about why those moments have been left not filmed or not shown, but with Accattone, it very much was all about those themes and it might seem a little anticlimactic or a little bit confusing without having a lot of that background. Here, I think you can enjoy the movie anyway, and I that’s probably down to Magnani’s performance, but I think it gains a lot more depth the more you know about Pasolini and his politics and the kind of empathy that he has for the sort of people that are on display here.
In fact, I was reading an article earlier and I have a quote from it here. It says: “Pasolini was devoted to the wretched of the earth with honest fervor and deluded romanticism,” which I thought was a really nice line, because he feels like it’s more noble to be at the bottom of the ladder, but the reason these characters want to get out of it is because it’s so goddamn hard down there as well. And also, of course, at odds for an artist who lived his life in a fairly privileged manner, even if he was distanced from society because of his sexuality. This film was protested and even I guess banned briefly for obscenity — which we run into this all the time, anyone who’s a fan of movies made before 1980 — the changing standards of what is and isn’t obscenity is always so interesting to see. But here, even compared to Accattone, outside of the fact that prostitutes are shown in a fairly empathetic and positive manner, it’s not like this is a movie that’s filled to the brim with violence and even sexuality, though sexuality is always on the edge of the screen, to the point where Mamma Roma’s relationship with Ettore has uncomfortable sexual undertones.
AG: Definitely, there’s a bit of Jocasta complex situation going on.
DT: I almost feel like Pasolini can’t help but put those kinds of things in this movie, just because of his own fixations, but I think even a layperson coming to this movie with no other experience would think, “boy, that relationship with his mother seems….” Especially the way that she looks at him, and the sequence near the beginning of the movie where she’s teaching him how to dance, there’s a kind of charged sexuality that’s there that would be hard to miss.
AG: I agree, and not to derail, but I want to comment on something you mentioned earlier about Anna Magnani’s performance and how she imbues it with this quality that makes it easier for maybe the average movie-watcher who is not as familiar with Pasolini to really engage with the film. I think her role in this movie is very much in the vein of older Hollywood melodramas, something akin to Sirk’s Imitation of Life or King Vidor’s Stella Dallas, which feature these tragic mother figures who make immense personal sacrifices for their children. It’s a familiar character type that resonates with people and easily bridges that potential cultural gap.
DT: Absolutely, but also mocking the expectations of those [kinds of movies] because Pasolini can’t just make a straight Hollywood narrative or anything like that, he has to throw in curveballs. But still, you’re right, the character and the performance really does seem of that ilk, while in this case setting her background as so overtly a prostitute…
AG: It’s subversive.
DT: Very much so. And that kind of plays all the way through the movie. If you saw Ettore’s role as a traditional coming of age story where a young man has to find himself, well, that certainly takes an odd turn as well. I still can’t get over the fact that his plan was to steal from dying patients in a hospital.
AG: It’s pretty beyond the pale.
DT: And also, when he encounters the junk dealer, basically, that he goes to early in the movie where he sells him some records, and the guy says to him, “I’ll buy anything, I’ll even buy rocks.” It’s kind of this embodiment of capitalism right there.
So, maybe we should talk a little bit more about the ending of the movie? As we’ve already mentioned, it’s very sad. Ettore’s death is kind of brutal in a way, because I think he is intentionally punished more than he really deserves for his actions, even though his actions are pretty reprehensible leading up to it. He has to die alone. At first, he’s put into a cell surrounded by other prisoners who just think he’s crazy, because he’s mumbling to himself, because he’s feverish and literally dying. And then, because he desperately tries to make a run for it, they wind up strapping him to a table instead, where he winds up passing away. Then, it cuts to Mamma Roma and she already knows he’s been imprisoned — we don’t find out about her finding out about it, that big dramatic moment — she’s sitting at home basically lamenting about the fact that her son is having to go through this, and when she heads back into town where she’s just about to find out about Ettore’s death, the person who runs the stall next to her is trying to comfort her, and he’s saying, “I spent time in jail as a kid and it straightened me out, and maybe this will be the thing that saves him,” and of course, even that sort of light moment just leads into more tragedy because of what she’s about to experience.
AG: And also, it seems like she has no idea that he’s actually sick, or that sick, which makes what is inevitable even worse because she’s totally blindsided by the news that her son is dead.
DT: It’s just this extra level of tragedy at the very end.
AG: It’s a powerfully effective use of dramatic irony, because the audience is very aware of what is actually happening to Ettore, but Mamma Roma is not, so there’s this excruciating tension building as her world slowly crashes down around her and she discovers the full extent of what happened to her son, and we’re not sure how she’s going to find out, but we know we have to brace ourselves for impact.
DT: But even that is weirdly placed in the movie, because someone whispers it into her ear, but you only see the end of it, her reaction to what is being said, but you don’t actually get to see someone say the whole thing about her son has passed away in prison. It’s just her tragic, shrieking reaction to it. All of this that we’re talking about, this ending, happens in the final ten minutes of this movie; that includes the hospital scene where he’s trying to steal, where he gets arrested, where he’s brought in with the prisoner, where he’s put on the table, where she finds out about it and she rushes to his bed. That all happens in a very condensed amount of time. It’s actually unbelievable how much drama bookends this movie.
AG: Accattone is kind of similar too in that respect.
DT: Absolutely. Again, it’s one of those things where, if you’re not used to the way not even just Pasolini, but a lot of Italian films of this time period are paced, you might be a little confused, because it ramps up so quickly and then just ends that you almost gotta watch it again just to get a sense of how it all came together. I think it’s very reasonable that when trying to recount it in your head, the order of everything in the middle can be a little sketchy sometimes.
DT: You were saying that you enjoyed this movie — and maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word — but that you liked it more than Accattone on some level.
AG: Though I appreciate them both, what it comes down to is that Mamma Roma holds more emotional resonance for me. I have a very strong relationship with my mother, which I think is really coloring how I respond to this movie, so I just think there was a personal element to this which made the experience of watching Mamma Roma that much more powerful. It’s a beautiful, but ultimately very tragic character study of a woman who would ordinarily be spit upon by larger society, but who through Pasolini is given this strange sort of benediction. Visually it’s captivating, too, basking in the influence of Renaissance and baroque art. Come to think of it, I think it surpasses Accattone on that level as well.
DT: Similar to you, I have a very strong relationship with my mother, and I echo all of those thoughts entirely. These are characters that I naturally would have a lot of sympathy for, and a lot of empathy for, so it works for me to have that connection more so than a character like Accattone, who I have to work to find empathy for, so I’m naturally predisposed to want Mamma Roma to succeed. But that is what I find particularly interesting about this movie: Pasolini doesn’t really want her to succeed. He’s the one pulling the strings, and he wants her to fail because her aspirations to him are an affront to how the world is, and it’s almost perverted to try to move yourself upward in a way, because it’s almost insulting to people who are beneath you.
It’s so separated from my own way of thinking that I find it both fascinating and a little bit distressing, because a character that I find so sympathetic and that I want to have happiness is being punished for reasons I can’t even necessarily relate to. But in some ways, it makes it all the more affecting because she’s being punished for no reason; she’s done her best, and the world is saying, I’m sorry, but you don’t get to be happy just because you feel you should be or you’ve worked so hard that you feel like you deserve more. That’s just how the world is sometimes. It’s a portrayal of a brutal, unsatisfactory, crushing version of the world, and if that doesn’t sound like a good time to you, well, you’re probably right, but it’s still one I feel like is worthwhile experiencing.
And that’s a wrap! Join us again next month for Part 3 of The Pasolini Project, as we delve into Pasolini’s sharp social critique and exploration of The Passion, La ricotta. You can find Doug Tilley at No Budget Nightmares and Eric Roberts Is the Fucking Man, and on Twitter at @Doug_Tilley. You can find Adrianna right here on Cinepunx!