1962, NR, 110 min. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini, Luisa Orioli, Paolo Volponi, Luciano Gonini.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 23, 1995
Pasolini's 1962 film has finally (!) made it stateside, and it's about time. Well-known on the continent as one of the eccentric director's early masterpieces, Mamma Roma has been curiously overlooked in America. No more, I suspect. Pasolini's document of an aging prostitute's love for her teenage son and her misguided attempts to control him is a punchy, gorgeous masterpiece, filled to bursting with the director's trademark dialogue, early neo-realism, and enough beautiful cinematography (by Tonino Delli Colli, of Once Upon a Time in the West, Seven Beauties, and Polanski's recent Death and the Maiden) to bring most any lover of films to his or her knees. Magnani is the titular Mamma Ro', who celebrates the marriage of her pimp by shuttling off to the countryside to pick up her semi-estranged son Ettore (Garofolo, looking for all the world like a cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and a young Quentin Tarantino) and begin her life anew. It's a Pasolini film, so naturally things fall apart almost instantly: Ettore begins hanging out with the local bad girl, his friends try to talk him into petty theft (and succeed, with disastrous results), and Mamma herself finds that just because a pimp is married doesn't automatically mean he's gone. Tragedy is the beat here, and Colli's shots of the desolate Rome landscape (it's all weathered ruins interspersed with ghastly Sixties architecture) help keep the overbearing use of Vivaldi at bay. Magnani's Mamma Ro' is a marvel to behold; although on-set tensions were reportedly hot between the director and his leading lady, Magnani is perfect as the loud, abrasive, vulgar, and thoroughly alive Mamma Ro'. It's a sumptuous role, one that requires intense knowledge of both physical acting (the character, like the film, never stops moving: She's always walking, dancing, shouting, like some primordial element let loose in modern-day Rome) and the subtlety of a nuanced performance, and Magnani pulls it off terrifically. Garofolo and a cast of mostly non-professional actors make up the rest of the film's winningly realistic performances and add tremendously to Pasolini's depiction of 1962 Rome as a place of seedy honor, a place where even a lifelong whore can attempt to set her life in order one last time.