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Mamma Roma: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection's release of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962) is a notable event indeed, but not necessarily for the film which it intends primarily to celebrate. Though this late-in-the-game tribute to the classic Italian neorealist tradition is an acceptable picture in its own right, it is a minor achievement compared to the infamous short, "La Ricotta" (35 min.), which has, for the first time ever, been freed from the 1963 omnibus, RoGoPaG, where it heretofore towered among lesser works from Rossellini, Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti. An absurd, but invigoratingly scabrous tale of an ill-fated filmed recreation of the Passion of Christ — presided over by a misanthropic director appropriately embodied by Orson Welles (who has been dubbed by an Italian actor with a discomfiting higher vocal register) — that earned Pasolini a later-commuted six-month jail term, "La Ricotta" presages Monty Python's irreverent treatment of the crucifixion in Life of Brian, while allowing the director the purest and most focused expression of contempt for the petite bourgeoisie. In a monologue of profound, liberating fury, Welles's director lays into a visiting journalist, inveighing against the monstrousness of mass-contented mediocrity (he calls the average man a "monster"), a diatribe which ends with the director noting his own inextricable complicity in the pernicious capitalistic machinery, as the film is being bankrolled by the same company that employs the newsman. It's the most naked moment in a picture of provocative sacrilege, in which a restaging of the classic "Descent from the Cross" is interrupted by a bouncy rock-and-roll music cue, and the Virgin Mary is played by a lapdog-toting diva (probably modeled, in part, after Pasolini's difficult working relationship with Anna Magnani on Mamma Roma.) Most of the action of "La Ricotta" is concerned with a hapless extra named Stracci, whose chief concern of the day is to sit down and have a meal. When he is finally given this chance, the entire cast and crew show up to mock his hunger, fueling his gluttony by shoving an endless succession of food under his nose. When he returns to work, as one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus, he expires from severe dyspepsia. Most of Pasolini's movie work (he was also a gifted novelist, poet, and essayist) derived its power from the reckless expression of his distaste for what he perceived as the mindless conformity of the Italian populace, and, aside from the disgustingly ineffective Salo, he was never more fearlessly on the attack than in this masterfully formalist spasm of outrage.

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It's best, then, to view Mamma Roma first, as it is a restrained socialist lament in comparison. Though Pasolini's compositions, filmed in striking high-contrast black-and-white by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, carry an intermittent indelibleness (his affection for faces is a perfect match for Magnani's sagging, worn-down beauty), the milieu, story, and — most of all — technique are just too familiar; in Pasolini's hands, the neorealist aesthetic feels borrowed, and the film largely unfolds as if an exercise in style. The simple narrative concerns working girl Rosa's return to respectable living after her pimp's retirement. This freedom allows her a long-desired opportunity to raise her handsome, rapidly maturing teenage son, Ettore, for whom she dreams of a life away from the enervating slums of Rome. Unfortunately, Ettore is too much at home in this squalor, and while Rosa, through a nasty bit of blackmail, manages to secure for him a job at a respectable local restaurant, he eventually falls back into the aimless existence in which he is most comfortable. An indictment of the materialistic concerns of the middle class, and how they trickle down to poison the proletariat, the film does retain a sad relevance today, particularly in way rap and R&B music sell a vision of near impossible affluence to the ghetto bound segment of its audience; Ettore's pawning of Rosa's record collection to buy a gold necklace for his promiscuous girlfriend Bruna emblemizes this morally casual craving. Meanwhile, the trenchant criticism of the church's indifference to its poorest parishioners resonates throughout, culminating in a devastating final sequence of shots. But Pasolini's cynicism too often extends to the plight of his titular character, whose scheming personality largely renders her unsympathetic. Moreover, Magnani's shamelessly operatic turn grates against the film's otherwise straightforward naturalism. It's a magnificent performance that feels like it blew in from the day's popular "Italian Style" comedies (a genre in which neorealist master Vittorio de Sica was currently thriving). The Criterion Collection presents Mamma Roma in a very nice widescreen transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras on this two-disc set include a trio of interviews (24 min.) with Bernardo Bertolucci (assistant director on Pasolini's debut, Accattone), Tonino Delli Colli, and biographer Enzo Siciliano, a reasonably informative documentary, Pier Paolo Pasolini (58 min.), the aforementioned "La ricotta" (35 min.), a poster gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a 32-page booklet with essays by Siciliano, critic Gary Indiana, and excerpts from the out-of-print interview collection, Pasolini on Pasolini. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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