To coincide with the upcoming partial retrospective of Pier Paolo Pasolini films in Hong Kong as part of HKIFF Cine Fan Programme, I engage myself in viewing the infamously controversial director’s works that are included in the Criterion Collection. Out of the 12 feature films (26 directorial efforts in total, including shorts, are listed in IMDB), only four are in the Criterion catalogue at the time being, including Mamma Roma (1962), Trilogy of Life (The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Arabian Nights (1974)), and Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976). Apparently this is an underrepresentation of such an important director, especially his earlier works. (Comparatively, Pasolini’s works are more readily available in the UK region via the releases from BFI and Masters of Cinema)
Being a poet, journalist, playwright, philosopher, it seems to be a natural step for Pasolini to be involved in film-making. His debut feature, Accattone (1961), could be considered as a continuation of the Italian Neorealism from Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica with its social critique and concern of the deprived. Pasolini differentiate himself from the former masters by the cynical and non-redemptive tone and vision, as well as the subsequent scandal and controversy.
Accattone is the second Pasolini’s work that I saw immediately after Salò, the last film he made shortly before his murder. It’s hard to think of the two films with the same director without perceiving the progression in-between. I consider The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) the masterpiece and the best work of Pasolini, and I am in favor of the sarcasm and skepticism shown in The Hawk and the Sparrow (1966) and Theorem (1968). Mamma Roma, Pasolini’s second feature, would serve to be a missing bridge to his later works which I’m mostly ignorant with except those mentioned above.
Pasolini preferred non-professional actors, he regard choosing the right faces more important than the acting abilities, one of the distinct feature of neo-realism. The fact that all (or almost?) of the Italian films at that time were dubbed afterwards is beneficial for actors who have difficulty in reciting the dialogue. The obsession on faces is enhanced in the framing of characters, often reminiscent of Italain mannerist paintings, for instance works by Caravaggio. The preclude of Mamma Roma consists of a wedding scene that bring to mind of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (a more subtle expression than Luis Buñuel in Viridiana (1961)); whilst a boy being restrained on a wooden bed is a recreation of Mantegna’s “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”, which I only learnt upon watching the supplements included in the DVD.
In Mamma Roma, Pasolini took a risk in using Anna Magnani, arguably the most famous Italian actress besides Sophia Loren at that time, as the titular character. However, Pasolini considered the choice as a misstep retrospectively. Anna Magnani’s expressive gesture and performance is one step from being total distraction, yet it stays true to her character Mamma Roma. Roma is a ex-prostitute arises to be the center of attention in every single frame of the film, indiscreetly talkative and stuffed with intensely sarcastic mockery, one could hardly look away when Anna Magnani is present. Her maternal love to her teenage son Ettore (played by the non-actor Ettore Garofolo, Pasolini wrote the role for him specifically in mind) would be oscillated between joyous moments (the tango and the bike-riding scene) and bitterness in Ettore’s rebellious acts.
Roma left her son in the province while she worked in Rome as a prostitute for her pimp and ex-lover Carmine (Franco Citti, the actor who played Accattone in Pasolini’s debut). When she saved enough money, she bought a hawking stall in a market and brought Ettore to Rome to live in an apartment. Her past becomes a secret that she intends to keep away from her son. The aspiration to achieve a middle-class life, or at least a decent one, is destined to be a failure from the beginning when Carmine reappears.
Ettore, on the other hand, struggles to perceive his mother’s caring as well as the new city life. He soon associate himself with city dwellers and thugs, sold her mother’s beloved record to buy a gold necklace for Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a older lover with a young child he just met. There is a scene of Ettore “sleepwalking” in the dreary ruins, the spatial as well as emotional detachment is strikingly impactful, reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s alienation in architectural space.
Additionally, a frame of city view with a block of uncharacteristic apartments and a church-like dome-top building invariably appeared between scenes, most memorably during the ending when Roma learns the fate of her son, she runs up to his room and attempt suicide, it’s the same view that she looks out the window and got transfixed with. It’s cruel bleak reality that inevitably offers no comfort. Like the death of Accattone that himself foreseeable in Accattone, and the crucifixion of Jesus in The Gospel According to Matthew, it’s no telling that Pasolini’s films end with a happy or sad ending, like it or not, it is what it is. When the screen fades to black, Mamma Roma still has to live on, no matter how unforgiving and non-redemptive the life is.