Pier Paulo Pasolini’s masterpiece Mamma Roma (1962) is a story about a woman, but it’s also a tale of a city. So any understanding of the movie inevitably involves an almost Homeric odyssey providing a different Baedeker than the ones which emphasize great monuments to antiquity like the Pantheon and the Colosseum. The character Anna Magnani plays actually represents a mythos, a set of histories both pagan and Christian, sacred and profane that are manifest in the varying locations that Pasolini selected for his film. Each setting in turn is a succession of paintings come to life replete with its own iconography which is a history of Roman religion, art and culture. Pasolini’s Rome exudes none of the glamor of, for instance, a Fellini. His Rome is not the Via Veneto of La Dolce Vita (1960) with its aristocrats and intellectuals. Rather it’s the world of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, who occupy sterile and dilapidated public housing. And like the French filmmaker Robert Bresson, he pursues the notion of isolation and spiritual confinement. Magnani’s Mamma Roma is a prostitute who is seeking a better life for herself and her son Ettore, but her son ends up literally crucified, tied to a bed, in the prison hospital where he dies. There is a joyful scene at the end of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) when the prostitute (Guilietta Masina) who has almost been killed by her lover transcends her misery. However, it finds no parallel in Mamma Roma where Magnani’s world narrows before her and she cries out with a despair redolent of Greek tragedy.
Drawing by Hallie Cohen of turtle fountain Pasolini loved
This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy’s blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture