Mamma Roma is one of the least well known of Pier Paolo Pasolini's films yet it is one of his best. Part of the reason it is unknown is because the film - made in 1962 - was not release in the United States until more than 30 years after it was made.
Anna Magnani - in one of her best roles – plays Momma Roma a prostitute who tries to go straight. In the beginning of the film she attends the wedding of her ex-husband who is also a pimp. She celebrates with gusto because she is free of her obligations to him. Plus, life is looking good since she now has a job as a fruit vendor and she has just gained custody of her son Ettore – who doesn't know that she has a history of turning tricks.
Ettore (Etore Garofolo) is a teenager who hangs out with some of the other boys in the area. None of them have jobs and their idea of a good time is to rob the local hospital and sell the goods for a small profit. But Mamma has high hopes for her son, which she tries to manipulate and influence in her own unique way. Unfortunately, her rank in society is not high enough to do him much good and the boy suffers because of it.
The film is very much in the Italian neo-realist vain in that it deals with working class people in rundown areas of Italy who struggle to make ends meet. But it has Pasolini's own brand of Marxist Catholicism lurking in the shadows.
What's notable – other than the fine performances – is the direction by Pasolini. If you have only seen his later films such as The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales or Salo it's easy to believe that he directed controversial and sometimes poorly made B-grade pictures. But Mamma Roma is very well directed, beautifully shot (look for a few remarkable long single takes] and edited. It deserves to be part of the film canon and now that it is out on Criterion Collection it will certainly get the respect it deserves.
The DVD is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks very good. The black and white has good contrast with many gray tones. There are some scratches and blotches but not enough to affect the overall quality of the film's look.
The audio is in Dolby Digital 1.0 and sounds okay. As in many Italian films from the period the voices are dubbed. But it is not blatantly noticeable.
Criterion presents the movie on two discs. The first disc is the movie, the trailer and some movie posters. The second disc has all the goodies. First up are three interviews featuring Bernardo Bertolucci, Tonino Delli Colli who shot many of Pasolini's films and Enzo Siciliano, author of a biography titled 'Pasolini'. Then comes a very good - and poetic - documentary titled Pier Paolo Pasolini which lasts for about an hour.
Last is a 35-minute short film titled La Ricotta in which Orson Welles plays a bemused director who is directing 'The Passion of Jesus'. This film was considered controversial in its day and it is easy to see why. The story is about a poor day laborer who plays the thief who was crucified along with Christ. Pasolini seems to ask; 'Hey, what about the thief - wasn't he also crucified?' Pasolini makes a pretty profound (and darkly humorous) statement about the mistreatment of the poor man. It's an interesting film [albeit a pretty rough looking one] that feels a bit like a Fellini picture made by a Marxist.
Mamma Roma finally gets the treatment it deserves. The film is one of the best and unappreciated by controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The DVD has fine extras and is highly recommended. If you have never seen a Pasolini film this is the place to start.