"Mamma Roma" opens at a rural wedding celebration as the title character leads three pigs into a party at which the guests sit like the participants at the Last Supper. Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) proceeds to sing several, mostly scatological, songs.
Within three minutes, "Mamma Roma's" director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, deals body blows to Italy, to the Church and to modern society. Mamma Ro' calls the pigs "I fratelli" (the title of Italy's national anthem), and she reveals that the bridegroom, Carmine (Franco Citti), is her former pimp.
This remarkable 1962 film, which opens at the Charles today for a one-week run, was Pasolini's second feature, and it has only now been released for theatrical distribution in the United States. Pasolini, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975 at the age of 53, was one of Italy's most important filmmakers, poets and novelists. He was also a controversial social critic, whose denunciations of the evils and hypocrisy of government, capitalist society and the Roman Catholic Church rang out with Old Testament fervor.
In its ideology and texture, "Mamma Roma" is filled with the director's twin obsessions -- Marxism and Catholicism. Pasolini may have called himself an atheist, but his relationship to Catholicism is not so much that of a heretic as a blasphemer. Like many of his later, better-known films ("The Gospel According to St. Matthew," "Hawks and Sparrows" and "Teorema"), "Mamma Roma" searches for justice in a universe in which God's absence is not so much a matter of His non-existence as of His distance.
The meat of the film concerns Mamma Roma's heroic efforts to lead a straight life and to protect her teen-age son, Ettore, whom she sent to the country when he was a child, from the evils of poverty and the temptations of the street. She becomes a fruit-and-vegetable vendor, saving enough to move herself and her son into a lower-middle-class housing project and to buy him a motorcycle.
But Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) becomes involved with a bad crowd and with a compliant older girl. Mamma Roma first asks a local priest for help. But he tells her that because the boy is illiterate he can never expect to become more than a manual laborer. With the help of Biancofiore, a prostitute friend, she blackmails a restaurant owner into giving Ettore a job as a waiter. As she and Biancofiore watch Ettore on his first night on the job, Mamma Roma cries for joy.
That joy is short-lived. Carmine, her former pimp, returns and forces her back to her old life. Ettore quits his job and relapses into delinquency. As Mamma Roma walks the streets, she looks at the distant stars and exclaims, "Why is it that I am a nothing and that you are the King of Kings!"
Pasolini's verbal skills are more than matched by visual ones. He always had a knack for making the faces of his impoverished subjects look like angels in a canvas by Caravaggio. Before one realizes it, he has created an atmosphere in which it is impossible to watch Mamma Roma and Ettore without thinking, even if unconsciously, of Madonna and Child.
The film's climax is a superbly Dante-esque transmogrification of the Passion. Its even more brilliant coda -- as Mamma Roma looks across the urban blight of the suburbs toward the distant, domed grandeur of the ancient city -- tells us that Rome, once famous for her kings and popes, is now mother only to beggars, thieves and pimps.
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo and Franco Citti
Released by Milestone Film