Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy). Year of Release: 1965
A wedding reception in Southern Italy. Everyone’s sitting at the main table when a woman comes with a gift for the happy couple. It’s three pigs on a leash. She explains that they are suitable for the attended guests as “they fuck all the time”. Late, she finds herself a seat at the table, and indulges in a sing-off. This is Mamma Roma, occasional prostitute. The groom, Carmine, used to be her pimp and lover. She’s taking advantage of his marriage to free herself and move to Rome.
In Rome, she gets herself a license to sell fruit from a stall. She moves into a squalid flat with her son Ettore, later finding them a nicer apartment. Even here, the main view is of the local cemetery. Ettore spends most of his time lounging around, hanging about with his mates and being generally sullen. He is in his mid to late teens, after all (all of whom wear suits and ties. O tempora O mores). What else to you expect?
Whereas Ettore seems to be a fairly typical teen, his relationship with his mother (or rather, hers with him) is a little over-close. She tries to sort out his life for him, telling him which friends he should seek out. She says that at his age the only woman he should need is his mother. Later, she buys him a motorbike, and when he gives her a back saddle and drives her round town, she clings on a little too tightly.
Meanwhile, Ettore is trying to find himself a proper love life. He gets together with Bruna, a woman who his mates say has been with everyone. Bruna is several years older than Ettore and has luxuriant armpit hair and a child. He feels the need to buy her a golden chain, so he steals his mother’s old records to sell at the local market.
Mamma Rosa is not keen on untying Ettore’s apron strings. She extorts a favour from the owner of the local trattoria to get Ettore a job as a waiter. Her son doesn’t really seem too fussed about it, preferring to raise his money through petty crime. When Ettore seems to be getting close to Bruna, his mother tries to get one of her colleagues to seduce him, so as to prove that love is something transient and he shouldn’t worry his head with complicated things like relationships.
Carmine comes to Rome and tells his ex-lover that he desperately needs money. If she doesn’t turn tricks for him, he’ll tell Ettore all about her sordid past. He also uses the sort of persuasion employed by certain types of men on women who left them a long time ago, but never quite broke from their sense of responsibility. In short, Carmine is a bit of a bastard, really.
Mamma Roma returns to the streets. There are two phenomenal scenes at different parts of the film where she marches through the red light district leading a phalanx of prostitutes, as she briefly talks to different men about love before leaving them in her wake. Like all the film, it is magnificently shot, and shows us that although the subject of the film have low social status, they deserve to be filmed just as beautifully as your Merchant Ivory poshoes.
While all this is going on, Rome is being gentrified. Mamma Roma and Ettore live on the outskirts of town, in an estate of new houses which blot out the landscape of churches and older architecture. They are proud to have left their community of farmers, but although the interior of their new flat is much more luxurious than where they used to live, they are still members of the impoverished community of people who will ultimately lose out from the new building.
By the end of the film, Ettore is in a prison hospital, bound by his arms like Christ on the cross (this is not me using over-effusive metaphor, we are clearly invited to make the comparison). His fellow patients quote Dante. I must say that this was the moment when the film started to lose me. I can take all the elegant poverty, but this just seemed too knowing, trying too hard to show off.
Mamma Roma is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second film and sometimes you can see this. It is a little disjointed, and you have the sense of a horde of ideas being thrown against the wall to see which ones stick. I’m not sure if it would hold together so well if it weren’t for the astounding cinematography. And maybe some of its value lies in what came after, but it’s not a bad place to get started. Not at all.