Sunday, 17 March 2013

Reflections on Mamma Roma (1962)

Tight skirt, tight sweater: the sensational Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma (1962) by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Volcanic. Tempestuous. Explosive. Volatile. Ok, these are all clichéd adjectives to use in the description of Italy’s greatest actress Anna Magnani – but hell, they’re accurate. The woman (revered as La Lupa by her Italian fans) was a tigress, a seething torrent of raw emotion. Magnani was dead by 1973 (Italy was plunged into mourning) and made relatively few films, but she left behind a gallery of screen-scorching performances. I’ve loved her in Rome: Open City (dir: Roberto Rossellini, 1945), L’Amore (dir: Rossellini, 1948), Bellissima (dir: Luchino Visconti, 1951) and The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1953).

My favourite portrait of La Magnani, taken in the early 1970s (so towards the end of her life). If you have to age, it may as well be like this! She was clearly a powerful and sensual presence right up until the end

By the mid-50s, Magnani was so acclaimed in Europe that Hollywood inevitably beckoned. Weirdly, her American films seem well and truly inaccessible these days: I’ve never seen either The Rose Tattoo (1955) – for which she won the Best Actress Oscar -- or Wild is the Wind (1957). They’re seemingly unavailable on DVD in the UK and never crop up on TV.  For me Magnani steals Tennessee Williams adaptation The Fugitive Kind (1959) from under the noses of co-stars Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward, even with the handicap of unfamiliar English (she apparently never properly learned English and had to painstakingly learn her lines phonetically).

Magnani in Mamma Roma (1962). The surrounding urban decay (dotted with ancient ruins) feels desolate, almost lunar

Magnani’s crowning achievement, though, is Mamma Roma (1962), the film she made after returning to Italy after her stint in Hollywood. (Accounts vary about whether Magnani was born in 1905 or 1908.  Depending who you believe, she was her either 54 or 57 in Mamma Roma). The film is the highly politicised poet/provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini's follow-up to his sensational debut Accattone (1961). (I’ve already sang the praises of Accattone. I’ve seen Mamma Roma – one of my all-time favourite films -- many times over the years; this time it was on the big screen at The British Film Institute as part of their comprehensive two-month Pasolini retrospective).

A light-hearted moment on the set of a mostly tragic film: (left to right) Franco Citti, Ettore Garofolo, Anna Magnani and Pier Paolo Pasolini

All of the essential components of Magnani’s persona are represented in Mamma Roma: Earth mother. Feral she-wolf. Mother Courage. Mary Magdalene. Noble whore. Fallen woman. Monstre Sacrée. Gritty but kind-hearted ageing prostitute. Vital life force. Every Italian woman who ever wore a black slip and shouted at someone from her tenement balcony. Magnani portrays title character Mamma Roma (sometimes referred to as “Signora Roma; we hear her actual surname -- Garofalo – just once). The name implies she’s meant to personify the earthy, sensual, battered but resilient essence or spirit of Rome itself.

Pasolini and Magnani during the filming of Mamma Roma

(Pasolini reportedly later expressed ambivalence about casting the internationally famous actress in the lead role: in the Italian neo-realist tradition, he preferred using unknowns. His hesitation is impossible to believe watching Mamma Roma today: Magnani’s fierce, vital and magnetic performance anchors the film).

Magnani was a genuinely funny and ribald screen comedienne, but I like her best suffering heavy emotional torment. Her entry into show business in the 1930s was as a night club chanteuse – apparently she was like an Italian Edith Piaf. Onscreen she pitches her performances the way the great French chanson tragediennes Piaf and Juliette Greco sing their most tortured songs. Certainly Magnani’s ravaged, careworn face, with its expressive dark eyes and soulful under-eye bags, was ideal for evoking anguish.

Mamma Roma is a middle-aged prostitute who’s been walking the streets for decades. (Italian neo-realist whores have great fashion sense; Magnani mainly sports a tight pencil skirt and tight sweater-over-bullet bra combo, with a patent leather handbag and killer stiletto heels). Along the way she was forced to abandon her son Ettore (presumably he was raised by relatives; Pasolini never clarifies). Finally liberated from the bondage of her pimp and ex-lover Carmine, Mamma Roma is reunited with Ettore (now a teenager) and strives to eke out a new, more respectable life for them together in dog-eat-dog post-war / economic miracle-era Rome.

Mamma Roma and Ettore at mass

This theme of re-location from rural poverty to urban slum (and the traditions and roots that get lost in the promise of modernity and progress) particularly interested Pasolini. Like Accattone, Mamma Roma is set around the Roman neighbourhoods Pigneto and Trastevere – then decrepit, now hip and gentrified. I did some serious bar-hopping in Pigneto when I was in Rome in October 2010. To channel the ghosts of Pasolini, Magnani, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini I would have happily licked the cobbled pavement. (In reality I stuck to drinking Campari and Prosecco).
Bar Necci in Pigneto

My photo of framed portrait of Pasolini above a vintage jukebox at Bar Necci in Pigneto, taken when I was there in 2010. It was in this neighbourhood Pasolini filmed his early masterpieces Accattone and Mamma Roma. See the rest of my Roman holiday pics on my flickr page

Pasolini strove to transcend the conventions of Italian neo-realism into his own idiosyncratic Cinema of Poetry. As with Accattone, Pasolini tenderly ennobles the hardscrabble struggles of the impoverished social underclass with a lyrical, painterly eye (framing characters like they’re in a Renaissance painting) and employing classical music (in Accattone Pasolini used Bach as an aural backdrop; in Mamma Roma, Vivaldi soars on the soundtrack). This is a milieu of bare subsistence, in which hunger is a genuine possibility. When people argue, someone inevitably pulls a knife; the confrontation is probably observed by urchin children and a mangy third world stray dog. The war-scarred landscapes are so decimated they look lunar. In the background, a baby always seems to be crying. Mamma Roma and Ettore are cafoni, the Italian equivalent of North American hillbillies. In the subtitles, there are frequent disparaging references to “hicks”. Mamma Roma admonishes Ettore to not speak like a hick (presumably in a rough, rural peasant dialect) but to talk like she has learned to – like an urban Roman.

Almost immediately, there are ominous premonitions things won’t go well. The window to Ettore’s new bedroom offers a view of the local cemetery. Worse, Mamma Roma is tracked down by Carmine, who blackmails her into working the streets again.  Carmine is played by the swarthy, smouldering Franco Citti from Accattone (again playing a pimp). This time around Citti sports a (deliberately?) unflattering sleazy little moustache; it certainly makes him look like a seedy pimp. Magnani and Citti’s confrontations crackle with violence – emotional, with the potential for physical (you wouldn’t want to see Magnani lunging at you with a kitchen knife and wild-eyed expression). I’m a total sucker for Franco Citti; he’s unforgettable reminding Mamma Roma when he first met her, she was “covered in lice” and “didn’t know what panties were.” “You knew it would end badly for one of us ...” he snarls.

Franco Citti as Carmine

For swathes of Mamma Roma, Magnani vanishes and the action centres on Ettore.  As Magnani’s wayward son, non-professional actor Ettore Garofolo (yes, the character is named after the actor who plays him) makes a haunting impression and suggests a complex and troubled inner life. Pasolini’s camera tenderly explores his elfin face (melancholic in repose), button nose and sorrowful dark puppy eyes, captivated. A simultaneously tough and vulnerable man-child, he struts in the perfect sailor roll (or in this context, pimp roll) even in the too-big suit his mother insists he wear. As has already been pointed out, Garofolo can look like the pretty teenaged street thug from a Caravaggio painting come to life. (Pasolini and Caravaggio probably shared similar taste in rough trade).

Heartbreaker: Ettore Garofolo

Ettore is amoral, alienated. He rejects Mamma Roma’s attempts to make him go to school or work, drifting instead towards petty crime with the local juvenile delinquents. (Ettore’s gang are very much Pasolini’s type and his camera caresses them in loving close-ups. In a nicely rakish touch, one of  Ettore’s cutest buddies is missing a front tooth). It’s interesting to speculate Ettore has the makings already of being the next Carmine. In her urgent mission to advance her illiterate provincial son, Mamma Roma never stops to ask him what he actually wants. When someone asks Mamma Roma, "You’d hang on the cross for him, wouldn’t you?” she unhesitatingly replies, “What else is there?” Her maternal love is savage, primeval -- but Pasolini hints she’s also motivated by assuaging her own guilt for having abandoned him and asks if maybe Ettore would have been more content to stay in the countryside and be a labourer. Is what awaits him in Rome an “improvement”?

Pasolini’s most daringly audacious and avant-garde scenes depict Magnani turning tricks at night on a grim stretch of road (recalling the scrubby wasteland on the outskirts where Maddalena is beaten up in Accattone). These are opportunities for Mamma Roma to relate her own history. It starts with her fellow tarts (like loyal friend Biancofiore) and her “johns” asking Mamma Roma to tell them her story, but as Magnani walks and speaks they gradually drift away until it’s mainly Mamma Roma delivering heart-rending monologues about her travails directly to the viewer, effectively breaking the fourth wall. She speaks of brutal, grinding rural poverty and enforced marriage at age 14 to a relatively wealthier, much older man.

Mamma Roma's friend and fellow prostitute Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano). With her beehive hairdo and heavy 1960s dark eye make-up, she looks like a J H Lynch painting come to life

Silvana Corsini as the town tramp, young single mother Bruna, who ensnares Ettore with her feminine wiles (and fuzzy arm pits). Corsini played the dim-witted whore Maddalena in Accattone: she was exceptionally good at playing not very bright child-like women

Pasolini keeps key details of Mamma Roma’s life vague and – confusingly – her accounts often contradict themselves. She married the corrupt older man, but also refers to having “married” Ettore’s criminal father – who was promptly hauled off to prison by waiting police men as soon as the ceremony ended. They’re clearly not the same man. How many husbands has Mamma Roma had? There’s a tantalising possibility that Carmine could be Ettore’s father. (Ettore himself expresses no curiosity about his father’s identity. A more conventional director would have explored this plot angle; Pasolini has different priorities).  Mamma Roma’s stories meld the personal and the political: she rails against hypocrisy, Mussolini’s Fascism, injustice. In one soliloquy she describes the family of Ettore’s father as wretched scum, the lowest of the low (a police snitch, a beggar, a brothel madam) but points out “if they’d had money, they would have been good people” – perhaps the most powerful message of the whole film. In a moment of religious doubt, Mamma Roma looks skyward and angrily implores God, “Explain to me why I’m a nobody, and you’re the king of kings.”

As it progresses, Mamma Roma is increasingly characterised by an overwhelming sense of dread. Outside maybe film noirs, it’s difficult to find films more fatalistic than Mamma Roma or Accattone. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Mamma Roma (like Accattone) builds toward a tragedy that feels ancient, epic, primal and operatic; Pasolini foreshadows this from almost the beginning. It climaxes in a startling shot of a character filmed from above in a crucifixion position so beautifully-composed, so suffused with Christ-like suffering it makes you gasp.

Earlier there’s a wrenching moment when Mamma Roma abruptly clamps her hand over her face and bursts into tears of sheer relief, believing that things finally seem to be going in her favour -- all the degradation and turmoil she’s suffered is seemingly justified. Of course she is wrong. The odds (or the system) are stacked against her and Ettore before she even began. Mamma Roma’s daring to improve her lot seems to enrage the gods. Fate punishes her. It’s impossible to escape the past. Pasolini persuasively demonstrates that mother and son are foredoomed by their environment and socioeconomic status. In Accattone, Franco Citti seals his fate by defiantly declaring, “Either this world kills me or I’ll kill it!” In Mamma Roma, Anna Magnani similarly swears, “I’ve paid my dues in this life, and the next.” She lives to regret those words.


  1. I always learn so much from your posts! I'm going to have to check her out. I'm ashamed to say that I'm not familiar with her but she sure sounded like an amazing lady.

  2. Great review i am now sure to watch.