Mamma Roma as reviewed in Phantom TolboothAn ageing prostitute tries to make a better life for her son

Reissued by Mr. Bongo
110 minutes, DVD

Controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini brought his complex character into Mamma Roma, a black and white 1962 film about a prostitute who wants to leave the profession for the sake of her teenage son.

The prologue sees the ebullient lead Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) at her ex-lover and ex-pimp Carmine’s wedding to a country girl (with a set designed to reflect da Vinci’s The Last Supper). The most raucous guest at the reception, she leads three small pigs into the room and engages in insulting banter with the wedding couple as she celebrates her freedom from Carmine.

In a stark jump of sixteen years, we see the streetwise title character come to reclaim her son Ettore, so that she can lead him away from the many temptations that he will now face. She has a new flat and a legitimate job at a market stall to give them both a fresh start together.

But after all this time (we do not see who has looked after him) the pair find it hard to bond, with Ettore taking his cues more from a dubious band of new friends and especially the local slut Bruna, who seduces him.

Mamma Roma’s answer is to fight fire wth fire. In order to make Bruna unappealing by comparison, she gets a prostitute friend to spend the night with him, but it is a sorely flawed plan that hardly endears us to her.

The plot develops with no easy solution for the resilient Mamma Roma, especially after Carmine returns to get money from her, which she can only raise by a return to the streets, thus losing the moral authority to guide her son.

Pasolini uses a wealth of poetic techniques in his film-making as he caringly portrays the difficulties of the marginalized in general and in particular, Mamma Roma’s efforts at redemption. Although stylized, there is also a sense of realism to the film. The illegitimate Magnani was abandoned by both parents at an early age, raised by her grandmother in a slum in Rome, and had to sing in sleazy nightclubs to fund her passage though drama college. Ettore is named after the untrained actor who plays him.

There is plenty of depth to Pasolini’s directing here, but it can be a difficult journey for the viewer, trying to sympathise with Mamma Roma’s knotty situation, but frustrated by her illogical methods.

[Alongside Mamma Roma, Mr Bongo is releasing DVDs of work by two more of Italy’s finest directors, Olmi and Bertolucci]


Derek Walker