Pasolini, Mamma Roma, and La Ricotta

On Film / Essays — Jun 22, 2004

Indefatigably productive, ingenious, exasperating, narcissistically didactic, slyly self-promoting, abject, generous, exploitative, devoted to the wretched of the earth with honest fervor and deluded romanticism: Pier Paolo Pasolini can easily exhaust the adjective-prone, as man and artist, his person and his work riddled with contradictions. 

He is unique to postwar Italian culture and politics, unique in his degree of loathing for its fifties and sixties economic miracle and its impact on the country’s cities, the countryside, and its dialect subcultures, unique in his nervous mingling of intense, alienated Catholicism with Gramscian Communism; in La ricotta, the words of his own poetry, spoken by the film director played by Orson Welles (which had, alas, to be dubbed in Italian by Gregorio Bassani), “I am a force out of the Past. Only in tradition do I find my love...” embody the contradictions that made Pasolini the most controversial and certainly the most persecuted Italian artist of his day. For this worshipper of vanishing times and values was the victim of the most entrenched prejudices surviving from the past. Embracing the stereotype of the noble peasant, he was hounded throughout his career by the homophobia and pious ignorance of peasants, and finally got murdered by one.

His entire output as an artist—poems, plays, films, novels, essays, and journalism—adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and it’s especially the films that seem hit-or-miss on the vertiginous level of Pasolini’s own ambition. Pasolini’s cinematic legacy is a jumble of brilliant moments and fizzles, a sprawl in which almost everything is interesting yet much of it reflects the hazards of both lyrical and experimental film. 

Mamma Roma, Pasolini’s second feature, and in its antic way, the thirty-five minute La ricotta, which immediately followed it, are among Pasolini’s most audaciously shaped and satisfying movies. Mamma Roma is the story of a prostitute who rises from the subproletariat to the lower middle class, reclaims her son, Ettore, after an absence of many years, and moves him to Rome with her, where she tries to transcend her past while concealing it from him. This project of self-gentrification and of “urbanizing” an illiterate provincial youth is doomed, however, not least by the reappearance of Mamma Roma’s old lover and pimp, Carmine—quite literally “a force from the Past”—who twice compels her to moonlight from her hard-won position as a market stall proprietor and return to the streets she walked for thirty years.

From a formal viewpoint Mamma Roma is both an extension of the postwar neorealism of Rossellini and De Sica and its repudiation, a film of mostly short, even stuttery scenes broken by longer, surreal passages where Anna Magnani, in the title role, strides along the kind of ill-lit outdoor brothel found in every city, which American pimps and prostitutes refer to as “the track,” soliloquizing about fate as various interlocutors momentarily fall into step with her and then fade into the night. 

Mamma Roma’s attempt to give her son a better life has, thanks to Magnani’s grandiloquent acting, the flavor of tragic opera. As one character tells her, “You’d hang on the cross for him, wouldn't you?”  But Ettore, whom we first see sitting alone on a bench of a revolving carousel, has no real interest in “bettering himself,” despite some initial enthusiasm for a waiter job his mother and two accomplices have blackmailed a restaurant owner into giving him. He prefers the company of other aimless boys and their adventures in petty crime. His resentment of his mother for his long abandonment (it is never clear who raised him) quickly eclipses the novelty of her outsized personality and her copious affection for him; he feels suffocated by her determination to improve his lot, and completely at sea in his new urban environment. 

Mamma Roma’s own desire to rise has a strangely oscillating quality. The world she aspires to, a belt of dreary housing flats and petit bourgeois businesses on the Roman outskirts, is an up-market version of the ugliness she endured as a prostitute. Her efforts at “respectability” consist of going to Mass, hawking fruit and vegetables from a street wagon, and avoiding her previous profession. She visits a priest for advice, but when he tells her, “You can’t make something of nothing,” she readily draws on the wiles of the very underworld she has struggled to escape to get what she wants for Ettore.

And this is the crux of Mamma Roma. It isn’t that Mamma is morally flawed—though Pasolini viewed her attempt to find a place in a rapidly changing society as an expression of moral decay, because of this new society’s consumerism and spiritual vacancy—she is socially doomed, and the forces that have made her life a bitter struggle for longer moments of joy than the few she gets to experience (teaching Ettore to tango, clinging to him as the motorcycle she’s bought him roars along the roadway) are the same that literally doom her son. 

The overt Oedipal aspect of this film is a familiar element in Pasolini’s work. Strange to say, we never learn whether Carmine is actually Ettore’s father (something assumed by many critics), since Carmine never claims to be, and Mamma Roma, in one of her hallucinatory night-world promenades, says that “her husband” was Ettore’s father; but she also says this husband, presumably a young man, was arrested and taken away right after their wedding, leaving her “a virgin at the altar.” Moreover, at an earlier point she describes her forced marriage as a teenager to a man over sixty, who has outlived both her parents. (Where is he? She never tells us.) Carmine accuses her of seducing him when he was a simple country boy, and that she was already forty at the time. One would almost conclude that Ettore has no father and that Mama Roma is, like the city she’s named for, “eternal,” the archetype of the mother whose fatherless child is also her lover, if only in her own imagination. (Pasolini, whose sexual tastes ran to street boys like Ettore, loathed his father, who died in 1958, and worshipped his mother, whom he then lived with until the end of his life. He cast her as the Virgin Mary in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew [1964].)

Mamma Roma was attacked by both the Right and the Left, for opposite reasons, momentarily censured after its premiere at the 1962 Venice Film Festival when a local cop charged it with obscenity, and caused a minor riot when a group of neo-Fascist students invaded its Roman premiere. In a more subtle sense, even its star and director attacked it, or each other, over the issue of Magnani’s performance, which both (mistakenly) found less than wonderful, also for opposite reasons. The stormy reception of the film failed to reap the usual commercial success, and was hardly the first of Pasolini’s troubles (his novels and other writings had incited prosecutions and protests before he ever picked up a camera, and his first film, Accattone, had raised a formidable hue and cry). The “scandal” of Pasolini’s work made him a large public figure, and a large public target.

But none of Pasolini’s earlier provocations were quite as incendiary as La ricotta, the director’s contribution to the compilation film Rogopag (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti).  A profoundly religious film, La ricotta is an explosion of disgust at consumer society and its vulgarity, a scabrous reproach to the Catholic Church for its abandonment of the poorest members of that society, a film about a film about the Crucifixion that shows Christianity’s central symbolic event being staged within a circus of depravity. Its Christ is a starving film extra who gives his own box lunch to his hungry family, loses a meal he’s stolen to a visiting movie star’s lap dog, and, after managing to stuff himself with ricotta cheese, dies from indigestion on the cross. 

As Enzo Siciliano puts it in his biography of Pasolini, “this movie set is nothing but the temple overrun by the moneychangers.” La ricotta uses all the technical and moral ironies of filmmaking, the disjunction between “reality” and artifice, to paint a world of implacable cruelty ruled by money and cynically contrived spectacle. 

Soon after its release in 1963, La ricotta was seized “for insulting the religion of the state.”  Pasolini was put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to prison for four months, a conviction voided by an appeals court the following year.

While Pasolini was far too prominent and prolific a figure in Italian culture to be silenced by lawsuits and scandals, the pattern of harassment and denunciation that bedeviled his career from the beginning intensified after the successive polemical and legal brawling over Mamma Roma and La ricotta. International fame made him a potent gadfly in Italian politics and arts. His films and writings were considered a real threat to the substantial remnants of fascism in modern Italy. His murder in 1975, shortly after completing his most scandalous and blatantly anti-Fascist film, Salò, remains fogged by rumors of conspiracy, though many have said Pasolini found a martyrdom he was looking for, in the shabby streets of the abandoned poor he celebrated and mourned.