Mamma Roma

"O flower of shit": the earthiness of Anna Magnani and Pier Paolo Pasolini.



For a brief moment during the opening credits of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma, a fly appears in the lower right hand corner of the screen. It lingers only for a second, but it's long enough to elicit a smile. Even when listing black names on a white screen, Pasolini's films cannot escape the earth.


Poet, novelist, film director—Pasolini was all of these and more. An art critic and classicist, many of his films were adaptations of classic literature: Oedipus Rex (1967), Medea (1969), The Decameron (1971) (in which Pasolini portrays the painter Giotto), The Canterbury Tales (1972). Many were attacked for their obscenity, notably his final film, an adaptation of Marquis de Sade titled Salo – 120 Days of Sodom (1976) which has (erroneously) been called the most vile film ever made.


A homosexual, iconoclast, and virulent critic of capitalism, communism, and fascism, Pasolini is impossible to define, no less so because of his mysterious death (he was killed while cruising for boys, though some contend it was a political assassination; Pasolini had predicted his own murder just weeks before).


Pasolini has been made even more enigmatic by the unavailability of his films. DVD copies were known to sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Water Bearer has since released several of his films on DVD, yet the transfer quality is very poor, which is why Criterion's release of Pasolini's second film, Mamma Roma (1962), is so welcome.


Starring Anna Magnani (Rome, Open City) in the titular role, Mamma Roma is the story of a middle-aged prostitute whose pimp has married, freeing her to leave for Rome with her teenaged son, Ettore. There she aspires to a more bourgeois life, selling vegetables at a market stall, though she isn't above using her past friends to blackmail a restaurateur into employing her wayward son. Yet Ettore has been tainted by the streets, and Mamma Roma's plans inevitably end in tragedy.


Magnani's performance is a memorable and fully rounded one. Coarse, domineering, and earthy, Magnani gives Mamma Roma a complexity that lifts her above the film's socio-political commentary, especially in the film's opening, when she serenades her pimp's bride by singing "O flower of shit."


Pasolini's politics inevitably dominate the film's conclusion. Its final shots suggest that the city and its worship of commerce are the villains, a belief that would find more oblique expression in Pasolini's later films. As Pasolini said, "I wanted to show how eroticism was a warm, life-giving power for people, before it changed into a commerce of our time."


--Joshua Avram

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