MAMMA ROMA (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962)

Anna Magnani gives a clear, bright performance, but not a profound or interesting one, in writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma; her character, who tries leaving prostitution behind to provide guidance for her teenaged son, becomes a metaphor for Italy’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of its rigidly class-bound past. Mamma Roma is the antithesis of Magnani’s previous role, as dark, barren, embittered, nastily married Lady Torrance in The Fugitive Kind (1960), Sidney Lumet’s scathing film of Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending. Magnani called her role for Pasolini her most important one “thus far”—suggesting promotion to advance the film’s commercial prospects. Certainly this role is no match for Magnani’s truly great ones for Rossellini, Visconti and Renoir.
     Ettore, Mamma Ro’s boy, is the tedious protagonist. Ettore endlessly hangs out with same-age Roman slackers whose poverty predicts the course of the rest of their lives. Nothing his mother does can redeem Ettore; only his suffering can do that.
     There’s much walking, some of which visually puns off of Mamma Ro’s nighttime trade until she turns to daylight fruit peddling, from which she slides back into whoring when her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti, expert), threatens her with exposing to Ettore how she used to earn her living. Learning the truth elsewhere, Ettore downwardly spirals into a fatal illness; moreover, he dies horribly alone, tied and strapped to a table, after committing a petty theft. This last phase of his is visually represented as a crucifixion.
     The camera keeps apace with the film’s walking characters, either following them or withdrawing from them, creating a sense of stasis and confinement, which is enhanced by the subsidized, featureless urban housing that occupies the background of numerous frames.
     In this synthetic tragedy, the mother’s considerable anguish insufficiently moves us.

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