Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mamma Roma

Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, currently in revival at Film Forum, begins with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, ends with a reference to El Greco, in a desolate shot of burned-out ruins, and nods to Mantegna’s famous painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Actually, from the beginning, Pasolini’s second film establishes two of the director’s central obsessions—the low life of Rome’s pimps and prostitutes and Christianity, if not the passion of Christ himself, which puts the director in good company when you think of Augustine and Dante’s Divine Comedy, also mesmerizingly evoked in a tragic prison sequence. But the really great art historical reference is Anna Magnani (she, like the Madonna, will likely go down as one of the great subjects for all the artists—in this case filmmakers—who tried to embody her), who plays a majestic whore and lush who wants the best for her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). In the first scene she leads pigs into her pimp’s wedding while celebrating her freedom by swinging her then little boy in the air. It’s the bags under Magnani’s eyes—with their world weariness, their lust, their rapture and compassion—that leave such an indelible imprint. Guilietta Massina played a prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria with an almost Chaplinesque mixture of humor and pathos, and years later there was Sigmone Signoret’s Madame Rosa. But Magnani is the ultimate whore, strolling through Rome’s underworld in a series of literally death-defying soliloquies—only why did she have to shave her armpits?

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