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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Mamma Roma (1962)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Star: Anna Magnani

To say that Pier Paolo Pasolini was a controversial figure is an understatement. I first saw his name in the horror magazines and fanzines of the eighties, where people talked about video nasties, and his film Salo, or 100 Days in Sodom came up often. I haven't seen this yet, though I have now seen the trailer, and it looks completely out there. Yet Pasolini was not an exploitation film maker, however much his material might suggest it. He was an Italian neo-Realist who chose to make films about the underbelly of society.

This was his second film and Salo was still a long way into the future. However it's still a little out there from moment one, as an earthy and raucous Anna Magnani drives bonneted pigs into a wedding feast, each one representing one of the wedding party. She's the Mamma Roma of the title, a middle aged whore in the other Mamma Roma, the capital of Italy, but this wedding is her opportunity to quit: the bridegroom is her pimp, who's getting out of the business himself. So she collects up her sixteen year old son Ettore, who she has not brought up, and becomes a market fruit seller.

She's up against it in her new life, not because of any stigma tied to her former line of work because nobody seems to care, but because of who her son is becoming. While she's building a future, he seems to completely ignore the possibility of one. He hangs out with a bunch of juvenile delinquents who at least for now aren't bringing him too far into their world, and he falls for a local tramp who will apparently sleep with anyone. She uses all the power a mother can bring to bear to get him on the right track, from asking a priest to get him a job to having one of her former colleagues work on him to forget the tramp.

There are some fascinating scenes here, almost entirely driven by a wonderful performance by Anna Magnani, though Ettore Garofolo, playing a character of the same name, is effective in his film debut and is definitely a rough naturalistic actor. My favourite scenes are the ones where Mamma Roma walks through the streets, the camera backing up to keep her in frame. She carries on long conversations as she walks with a number of people, the wonderful thing being that it's always the same conversation while the people she talks to change as she walks.

The use of the church is interesting too, and no doubt the main reason for the controversy that the film generated, albeit it not a patch on the controversy that Salo would stir up. Mamma Roma goes to church regularly, seemingly ignoring what she's done for the last thirty years, and plans some highly immoral actions right there in the pew. Yet she's very clearly the heroine here, albeit a flawed and human one, and while we may not agree with all her approaches to life she's the only character in the film that garners our sympathy. She cares for her son but it's difficult for us to follow suit. Yet we feel her pain as he resists the paths she tries to walk him down, all the while knowing that as much as she cares, she's hardly been the best mother.

The amazing Anna Magnani is definitely the main reason to watch this film, but it has a resonance to it that can only be attributed to Pasolini as writer and director. This is my first experience of his work but I'm mightily impressed. I have problems with a lot of realist films, as I sometimes struggle to fin a reason to care about them, but the ones that I've become fond of are the ones that resonate and make me feel that instead of just watching a slice of life, they make me feel I've lived it along with the characters.

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