Pasolini’s playground among the Roman ruins

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Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1962 “Mamma Roma” stars Anna Magnani as the title character, a Roman prostitute determined to change her life and give her son the opportunities she never had. She seizes the opportunity to leave her life on the streets behind when her pimp (Franco Citti) gets married and frees her from his control. Mamma then goes to the small provincial town of Guidonia to fetch her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), and bring him to Rome to embark on their new life together. She buys a pushcart, finds an apartment in a nice neighborhood, and uses her connections to secure him a job in a restaurant. However, Ettore gets mixed up with a group of petty thieves and is negatively influenced by them. At the same time, Mamma Roma’s pimp resurfaces and sends her back to the streets. When Ettore learns about his mother’s prostitution, he goes astray and wholeheartedly joins in the petty crimes the gang of boys are commiting. One day, while suffering from the delirious effects of a high fever, he boldly walks into a hospital to rob a patient. He is caught and sent to jail, where he dies while strapped to a table in isolation. Mamma is devastated upon learning of his death. She becomes hysterical and attempts to throw herself out of a window but is saved by the townspeople, who share her shock at the news of Ettore’s death. The film ends with her gazing in horror at the cityscape that once held her hopes and dreams for a beautiful life with her son.

The film was released when the industrial parts of Italy were experiencing a post-war economic boom. However, marginalized people, like those from rural areas and the south, still faced challenges. Christopher Duggan wrote in his book “A Concise History of Italy” that during the 1950s and 1960s, “over 9 million Italians migrated to a new region of the country. Men and women, often illiterate, whose families had rarely stirred beyond their rural communities for centuries and who spoke dialect only, suddenly found themselves amid the neon lights, the hoardings, and the traffic of a huge bustling city: ‘I felt alone, like in a forest without a single living soul,’ recalled Antonio Antonuzzo, a Sicilian peasant who came to Milan in 1962 after his small family farm had failed.”  Italy’s post-war wealth did not reach everyone. People were still struggling, as reflected in “Mamma Roma” and other Italian films of that period. Pasolini also visited this topic in his films “Accattone,” which preceded “Mamma Roma,” and “The Hawks and the Sparrows,” which came after it.

It is rare to see a contemporary film intertwined with the remnants of the ancient world as “Mamma Roma.” Pasolini’s characters are so unphased as they glide around Rome’s ancient structures; they could have been the builders themselves.  This Rome, with its bustling neighborhoods, old music, lively markets, sense of community, and ancient ruins, was Pasolini’s last romp with the old days. The music was old, the dancing was old. It was another time. He could probably feel modernity on the horizon, so he went “full immersion” because the Rome he loved was slipping away.

Enzo Siciliano, a friend and confidant of Pasolini, wrote in his book Pasolini: A Biography, quoting the director, “At the time I made ‘Accattone,’ ‘Mamma Roma,’ and even ‘Hawks and Sparrows,’  this ancient world existed, but it was then swept away, and from the age of innocence we passed to the age of corruption.”

The grandiosity of ancient Rome is present throughout the film and was most likely influenced by Pasolini’s love of ancient art and architecture, a common theme in his work.

Pasolini introduces us to the Park of the Aqueducts, where the ancient Roman ruins featured in the film serve as the boys’ playground. Nearly every shot in which we see the boys contains an ancient ruin, whether off in the background or at the center of the scene. When Ettore is alone in the park while his new friends are scheming, Pasolini lets Ettore run free among the ruins as he plays with the little girls, trying to make them laugh. In the next shot, he is at an area of the park containing the ruins of Villa delle Vignacce, one of Rome’s largest suburban villas, dating from the 1st to the 6th century AD, with construction likely beginning during Emperor Hadrian’s rule. Situated within the park’s borders, this group of ruins is not as centrally located or as obvious as the huge, towering aqueducts. So, Pasolini must have really wanted to include this in the film. Not only does the villa represent imperial Rome and the city’s rich history, but it is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye. They are beautiful, monumental structures that add a dose of visual poetry to the film. The background music only intensifies the scene and the magnificence of the ancient structures against the modern apartment buildings. When Bruna joins Ettore in the park, and the two are talking, surrounded by the ruins, there is a strong sense of the past as if they belong to a different era. The ancient structures have that effect, and Pasolini captured it.

Another striking scene filled with the social togetherness of days gone by correlated to his love of art history takes place at the market when Zacaria, the potato vendor, informs Mamma that Ettore is involved with Bruna. In the scene, despite the uncomfortable exchange between mother and son, there is electricity in the air in the hustle and bustle of the market. Everyone knows each other, and there is friendly competition among the vendors. Add the Roman ruins we see in the long shot of Ettore walking to and from the market, and we have another exquisite homage to the “good old days” and ancient Rome.

The film begins to wind down with an extreme long shot of the boys walking down a road along the park with the massive aqueducts in front of them. The scene is suspenseful and foreboding as we watch them from Mamma’s point of view as she follows behind. They continue to walk along the park in full view of the aqueduct ruins. Pasolini is utilizing these ancient structures to the full extent. However, his artistic eye has turned them from romantic and nostalgic to dark and foreshadowing. Even as the boys seem playful as they run and joke around, there is an atmosphere of danger. Something bad is about to happen. Mamma attempts to run after them, but she cannot keep up. When Ettore turns the corner, he meets Bruna sitting in the park with her son. We see the ruins from another angle. They are further in the distance but still present in the scene. The two have an exchange, and then Ettore runs off. Mamma finally catches up. As she watches him from a distance, that is the last time she’ll see him alive.

The ruins are present for the last time after Ettore’s incarceration when Mamma pulls her cart along the park as she heads to work with the other vendors. They are giving her a pep talk, trying to convince her that jail time will do Ettore some good. After Ettore’s death, Mamma is devastated and attempts to commit suicide by jumping out of her apartment window. Pasolini carries his theme of old-time community right until the last shot when we see her friends, neighbors, and fellow vendors save her life and look out to the great dome of the Basilica Giovanni Bosco. Perhaps Pasolini and Mamma are both in mourning at that moment; Mamma for her son and Pasolini for the ancient Rome that he feels is slipping away.

To view the film on the Criterion Channel, click here.

To view a video I made with Roman actress Sveva De Marinis that shows key locations in Pasolini’s films “Mamma Roma” and “Accattone,” click here.


About Jeannine Guilyard

Jeannine Guilyard is a longtime correspondent for Fra Noi and the Italian-American community newspaper in Rochester, N.Y. She has also contributed to the Italian Tribune of New Jersey, Italian Tribune of Michigan and L'Italo Americano of Southern California. Jeannine wrote and directed the short film "Gelsomina," which was selected for the Screenings Program of the 59th Venice Film Festival, and she won Emmy and Peabody awards as an editor of ABC's "Special Report" following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Jeannine is also a writer and editor for Italian Cinema Today, a publication and blog she founded in 2005 to bridge culture between New York and Italy. Follow her on Instagram at Italianartcinema and on Twitter at @ItaloCinema2day.

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