Mamma Roma

August 31, 1962 (Venice Film Festival) — 110 minutes, black & white, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Drama
Pasolini’s 2nd feature, a beautifully-filmed tale of a middle-aged prostitute trying to put her past behind her and make a good life for her teenage son.

FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.

Review: Mamma Roma

Mamma Roma is an unforgettable experience.

Filmed in the Italian Neorealist tradition, yet with a wit and visionary power all its own, Mamma Roma offers a sharp look at a poor, single mother and her son trying to live in postwar Italy. It also shows Pasolini’s early mastery of film, as he extends his unflinching portrayal of the destitute of modern Rome from literature, in the now-classic novels The Ragazzi (1955) and A Violent Life (1959), to his new medium. The film also features his major themes – focused on the struggle of the marginalized for survival, and love – and stylistic techniques. Raw yet beautiful, this gripping work has lost none of its power in the more than forty years since its release. For people who have not yet seen the film, please note this spoiler alert, that after the summary in the next paragraph (which does not divulge the ending), this review will discuss several major plot developments, including the final scenes.

Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani, Rome: Open City, The Rose Tattoo) is a middle-aged prostitute doing everything she can to put her sullied past behind her and make a good life for her mixed-up teenage son, Ettore Garofolo (Pasolini uses this non-actor’s real name for the character). Mamma Roma is not above setting up an elaborate con to help her boy land a job at a fancy restaurant after he drops out of school (again). She even gets her street walker friend Biancofiore (Luisa Loiano) to entice Ettore away from the twentysomething Bruna (Silvana Corsini) who’s ensnared him, after reputedly dating all the other men in Rome. Mamma Roma wants much more than that for her only child – even more than he wants for himself. Just when her new life as a produce vendor, with a tiny new apartment in a huge housing project, is going well, back comes her ex-lover and pimp Carmine (Franco Citti, Accattone, Oedipus Rex). Swearing that he was “innocent” before she corrupted him years earlier, Carmine now threatens to tell the boy that his mother was a hooker. In a catch-22, in order to pay the blackmail money, she has to go back to work on the streets at night, after running her stand all day. Mamma Roma has to be sure that Ettore never finds out what she’s doing (again). But can she?

Pasolini’s technical, and hence aesthetic, advances in the year since he made 1961’s Accattone (itself one of the greatest debut features I’ve seen) are astonishing. Mamma Roma shows the poet/novelist/philosopher as a filmmaker in total creative control of his new medium. Director of photography Tonino Delli Colli (who shot almost all of Pasolini’s films), in an interview included in this DVD set, marvels at how in just two weeks Pasolini taught himself the full expressive range of cinematography. Pasolini came to know exactly which lens he wanted for an intended effect (such as the relative sharpness of focus between foreground and background), and precisely the compositions and editorial rhythms he needed. Pasolini’s films are as rich visually as they are thematically and, of course, emotionally. Considered one of Italy’s greatest modern poets and novelists, Pasolini also had one of the most striking visual imaginations in cinema.

What strikes me most about this film is its great emotional immediacy. Magnani gives a powerhouse performance, yet so does Pasolini on every level of his filmmaking, from the writing to the visuals and use of sound to his raucous sense of humor. He consistently, ingeniously, balances the real with the stylized. I believe it’s one of Pasolini’s greatest works because he also brilliantly integrates so many of his themes and techniques, both earlier (from his writings) and later (from his films), while connecting with us on a deeply human level.

Anna Magnani (1908–1973) here gives one of her finest performances, in a career which encompasses Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945), Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952), and even a Best Actress Academy Award for her first Hollywood movie, The Rose Tattoo (1955), from the play by her friend Tennessee Williams. After being thunderstruck by Accattone, Magnani had to make a picture with Pasolini. And he certainly wanted to work with one of Italy’s best-known, and best, stars. Pasolini had the perfect project for them, although he had actually been inspired to write it by Ettore Garofolo, whom he met through the boy’s brother. Magnani was immediately taken with the script – and she certainly knew something about Mamma Roma’s world. The illegitimate daughter of an Egyptian father and Italian mother, both of whom deserted her as a young child, she was raised in a Roman slum district by her grandmother. She worked her way through Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Art by singing bawdy songs in seedy nightclubs, which in turn led her to find work in theatre and later in movies. She also felt especially close to this film (even though she was horrified by the “enormous bags under my eyes!” – which we can see only make her character that much more real) because of experiences with her own son. Magnani gives a shattering performance which, like the film itself, is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, realistic and stylized. Strangely, she is more over the top than, say, Maria Callas as Pasolini’s (non-singing) Medea, and that’s a role where you’d expect big-time histrionics, especially from an opera diva. If you want to compare Mamma Roma to another character, you need look no further than the lusty, irrepressible Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which of course Pasolini would film nine years later.

Let me add that I disagree with Pasolini who, in hindsight, felt he had miscast the title role, despite his admiration for Magnani. Her earthy, passionate performance works brilliantly in many ways, holding the entire film together. On one level, her character can be extremely funny. And in a film with as much political and aesthetic seriousness of purpose as this one, those laughs are a definite asset. Accattone works very effectively without much humor, but by adding that additional texture here, the film is all the more powerful.

Pasolini immediately establishes that he’s not just making some social realist tragedy by opening with an ebullient Mamma Roma leading three fat pigs, dressed like proper citizens, into the wedding banquet of her ex-lover, and ex-pimp, Carmine. (Franco Citti, who plays Carmine, starred or appeared in many Pasolini films – including the title roles in Accattone and Oedipus Rex; his brother Sergio Citti collaborated with Pasolini on the dialogue for this and other pictures.) Mamma Roma’s choice of livestock is right on target. Carmine is a metaphorical swine, but he’s also, with his boyish features and ingratiating smile, cute – like the pigs. (And talk about Pasolini foreshadowing his apocalyptic satire Porcile, literally “pigsty”!) Mamma Roma laughingly calls them “our brothers” (including herself – she knows that she’s part of this world too); Carmine plays along, tagging them as “sons of Italy.”

Pasolini then launches into a brilliantly entertaining way of getting through the necessary exposition. Mamma Roma, then Carmine, and finally even his hapless bride Clementina, sing about their past relationships. This isn’t an MGM-style musical number. Rather, it’s something which you could almost – just – imagine actually happening. The three come up with new lyrics to what sounds like a folk melody, as they tell their stories. Rarely has so much tension been both glossed over and heightened by song. (Pasolini came up with several other wildly innovative openings, including the fun opening credits to The Hawks and the Sparrows, which are sung in the glittering style of a comic opera aria.)

Of course, all is not tunes and boisterous laughter. For one thing, we notice that Pasolini has borrowed, satirically, his set design – including the arch motif – from Leonardo da Vinci’s 1498 fresco, “The Last Supper.” (With such irreverence, it’s no wonder that this film again brought Pasolini into conflict with the authorities, who still had Fascist-era laws on the books criminalizing “blasphemy” to use against him.) Below, I will look in more detail about other ways Pasolini used art history to give added resonance to this film.

Pasolini shrewdly balances Mamma Roma’s larger-than-life persona with some intriguing technical/aesthetic devices, including his repetition of the same haunting Vivaldi concerto – with its clear harmonic structure and graceful melod – under the most melodramatic scenes, as in the late scene when Mamma Roma attacks Carmine, who has invaded her home. The people who were outraged by Accattone’s use of Bach as the underscore to savage violence were far more accepting of the choice here. As Pasolini put it, here the “combination… was less shocking – ordinary people who are trying to be petit bourgeois with the music of Vivaldi, which is much more Italian and is based on popular music, so the contamination [juxtaposition] is much less violent and shocking.”

Pasolini also employs a visual way of literally slowing down, giving us some distance from Mamma Roma’s presence. During a handful of subtle buy key emotional transitions, he employs very brief slow-motion shots. We see this in the transition from the opening wedding banquet to the merry go round with Ettore, at the midpoint during the sequence of Mama Roma and Ettore riding on the new motorbike she’s bought him, and a couple of other times. But the most overt way in which Pasolini balances Mamma Roma’s energy is, paradoxically, by contrasting her with her own son.

Ettore Garofolo, reflexively playing a character named Ettore Garofolo, helps balance the entire film. To contemporary viewers, Garofolo might bring to mind a young Leonardo DiCaprio, circa Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). (Garofolo has made only a half-dozen films in the forty years since his debut here.) The young man also allows Pasolini to tie this film into a tradition much older than Neorealist cinema, namely, Italian art of the Renaissance and Baroque. As Pasolini, with his prodigious knowledge of painting (and all of the other arts), would have noticed immediately, Garofolo has the cagey but sweet qualities of a latter-day Caravaggio model. Compare the actor with, say, Caravaggio’s well-known painting, “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” from about 1593. The resemblance is uncanny.

Yet just as Magnani brings her character to life, so does Garofolo under Pasolini’s careful direction. He doesn’t want a Caravaggio-like ‘living tableau’ (a technique which he parodied in his next film, the hilarious short “La Ricotta”.) Pasolini wants a living, flesh and blood character, with all of the contradictions that that implies. And Garofolo delivers.

In his memorable introduction, we first see Ettore riding on a desultory merry go round – although he’s both too old and too big for it. Once, twice, then it comes around again and, presto, he’s gone (which, of course, foreshadows both his nature and his ultimate fate). Notice in this scene that we never see him and his mother in the same frame. This is a subtle but resonant technique which Pasolini uses throughout the film to clarify the relationships between characters. Notice in the many scenes between two characters when Pasolini chooses to keep them in separate shots (such as Mamma Roma and Carmine, Carmine and Ettore, half of the time with Mamma Roma and Ettore), and when he brings them together in the frame (as with Mamma Roma and and her friend Biancofiore, and half of the time with Mamma Roma and Ettore). In that merry go round scene, even if we do not consciously notice the framing, subliminally we feel the tension between the separated Mamma Roma and Ettore, whom she is at last able to bring to live with her for the first time since his birth sixteen years earlier. In their “respectable” new home, Mamma Roma gets her son to wear a suit. But tellingly, it’s a little shabby and too big. Like the merry go round, and like the way Ettore feels, it just doesn’t fit.

Ettore, and the other young slackers he hangs out with, is associated with the ruins which lie just outside of Mamma Roma’s tiny new apartment in Rome. The bare fields and crumbling ruins are melancholy, yet Pasolini depicts them with a certain stark beauty (in Porcile, Pasolini was even able to find the primal appeal in a surreal Wasteland populated with cannibals). The decay of the old order, Rome in its heyday centuries past, is apparent in the ruins which mar the landscape. Their ruin also may hint at Ettore’s own fate. But there is also a kind of freedom reflected both in the wide open spaces with the billowing grass, and in the tentative sexual freedom of the young men and women who have their rendezvous there. That freedom may be largely illusory, but it’s still welcome in contrast to the endless stacks of sterile – and prison-like – apartment buildings (which one knows will not last anywhere near as many centuries as the shards of ancient Rome).

Evocative as are such symbolic, yet pressingly real, landscapes, Pasolini cares most about his characters – and the real-world people, so often outcasts, whom they represent. Pasolini lived in two completely separate worlds; he spent as much time with the destitute people we meet here as with the intellectual and artistic elite of his day. Yet besides the psychological depth with which he imbues Mamma Roma and Ettore, he also uses them to express larger social, philosophical, and aesthetic ideas.

For me, one of the most compelling aspects of Pasolini, whether as author or filmmaker, comes from how he used his many inner conflicts to create some astonishing works of art, including this film. His vision is always greater than any ideology, although Pasolini in interviews talks mostly about the politics of his work (as you can see in the rare interviews, from editor Oswald Stack’s indispensable but sadly out-of-print 1969 book Pasolini on Pasolini included in the booklet with this DVD set). The strangeness, beauty and power of his art comes partly from the antithetical perspectives – mystical Catholicism and hard-edged Marxism – which were constantly at war within him. The hostility of both those ideologies towards Pasolini’s sexual nature as a gay man, together with his critical readings in Freud and other depth psychologists, provides his work with yet more thematic and emotional richness. And as we’ll see a bit later, he connects all of those perspectives with Western – and in his later works non-Western – arts: painting, architecture, myth, drama, literature, cinema, and astonishingly eclectic music (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew’s soundtrack ranges rom African music and African-American spirituals to Johann Sebastian Bach to avant-garde composer Anton Webern).

Pasolini’s art can never be broken down into mere systems of belief, reduced to some pictorialization of ideas. His work pulses with life, as embodied – in the fullest sense of the word – in Anna Magnani’s performance here. Still, Mamma Roma does reflect Christian motifs: the fallen woman who has been redeemed. But here, despite her regular attendance at mass (which, besides reaffirming her faith, allows her to scope out potential rich wives for her son) and respect for the local priest, she is her own redeemer. And that connects her more with communism than Catholicism. She also allows for biting Marxist – and typically Pasolinian – satire on both conformist (“piggish”) middle class values and the unjust social order which doesn’t allow her to make enough money at an honest trade, and so forces her back onto the streets as a prostitute. And let’s not forget Freud.

Mamma Roma’s relationship with Ettore is textbook Oedipus complex, as we see clearly in that incredible Oedipal tango (which also looks ahead to the disturbing yet tender dance in Salò between the two – barbaric – young male guards). Still another part of the Oedipal chord here is the striking resemblance of Bruna to Mamma Roma: Ettore wants to bed a Mamma look-alike. The most disturbing part of the chord is, of course, Mamma Roma’s inchoate desire for her son. Notice how she prods Biancofiore, whom she persuaded to have sex with Ettore to draw him away from Bruna, for details about what it was like to have had sex with her son. But that is all part of this complex character. And Anna Magnani’s – and Pasolini’s – Mamma Roma is a total living presence, far greater than the sum of her ideological parts.

Although Pasolini uses a straightforward linear structure for the three dozen scenes of the film (he took a similar approach in Accattone, but a wildly different one in the somewhat experimental comedy “La Ricotta”), he knows how to use mysteries of character. Paradoxically, that strategy makes the film both more emotionally involving and thematically complex. Put another way, can we trust what Mamma Roma tells us? And if so, how much – and what?

Mamma Roma’s life story is split up into several – often contradictory – bits and pieces, which she recounts to various characters throughout the picture. For instance, she tells an anonymous stranger (and potential john) on one of her nocturnal promenades that, when she was just a young girl, the first husband she had was 65. But at another point she tells someone else he was 70. And he may, or may not, have “dressed like Robespierre” and built latrine-like housing units for Mussolini (talk about symbolic architecture).

One of the film’s most tantalizing questions – that it never answers definitively – is: Who is Ettore’s father? Some people claim it’s Carmine, and he almost implies as much. Yet the chronology is wrong, and Carmine is (probably) too young.

Pasolini, already feeling in command of his new medium, also increases Mamma Roma’s aura through purely cinematic means. He often shoots her looking directly into the camera, although that is a taboo which few filmmakers have the courage to break. The almost unbreakable tradition is always to have the character look just a little off to the side of the camera. But not our rule-breaking Pasolini. So Mamma Roma, with her passionate and beautifully expressive face (Magnani need never have worried that the big bags under her eyes would in any way detract from her performance – they make Mamma Roma even more real), looks right at us, stares us down. Not in a threatening way (after all, we’re not stand-ins for Carmine, are we?). But as one human being to another. Directly, immediately.

Pasolini extends this technique in one of his film’s most visually innovative – and emotionally involving – devices. In two nighttime sequences which help structure the overall narrative – one about a quarter of the length into the film, the other a quarter from the end – Mamma Roma saunters down a long, nearly deserted stretch of road. She’s back to her old tricks, literally. As she speaks, in what sounds like jazzy free verse, about destiny and love and her own incredible life, she meets an ever-changing series of fellow streetwalkers, johns, and assorted denizens of the night, who drift into the frame, go with her for a bit (it’s hard to keep up with that energy), then drift off, only to be replaced by others. On one level, the interplay of Mamma Roma’s high-stepping promenade with the camera’s graceful, unstoppable movement feel like a musical number. In the opening we saw Pasolini magically turn character exposition into a singing duel, but here he uses the camera as if it were a dancer. Everything feels carefully choreographed yet also natural, even fun. It also brings to mind the earlier funny but tense Oedipal tango scene with her son. As in the tango, the camera keeps a fixed distance from its ‘partner.’ But there’s yet another, and darker, level to this scene. As Mamma Roma constantly, inexorably, moves towards the camera it’s almost as if she’s trying to make an escape. But she can’t. The camera is always there, capturing her ebullience but also hedging her in. She keep coming and coming, but it steadily remains just out of rich – like the mythic Tantalus reaching for the fruit which always, always remains just out of reach. That Pasolini can make a sequence both neorealist and surreal, musical comedy-like yet existential – and do it in purely cinematic terms – is a credit to his genius.

These two parallel scenes also remind us of Pasolini’s considerable influence on other filmmakers. One of the greatest filmmakers who admired, and emulated, the earlier, more Neorealist, Pasolini was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. To take just a few examples, Mamma Roma’s unique tracking shots – with the head-on camera constantly moving just ahead of her – can be seen in pivotal moments in Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969) and Martha (1973). The early stairwell scene here, with the boys mocking Carmine as he tries to shake down Mamma Roma, is followed closely in several comparable scenes in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). And it’s perhaps no coincidence that in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), his film most reminiscent of early Pasolini, Fassbinder made the title character, like Mamma Roma, a fruit peddler groping for a better life. Of course, Pasolini’s mythic films – like Oedipus Rex, Medea, and Arabian Nights – are those most often emulated, extending from such notable contemporary works as Fellini Satyricon (1969 – Fellini had hired Pasolini for Nights of Cabiria to write the many scenes with the prostitutes), to the extraordinary British filmmaker Derek Jarman in Sebastiane (1976), to films today which try, often in vain, to recreate the ancient world with the force of the past master.

But back to Mamma Roma herself. All of the contradictory clues about her history, that she constantly rewrites – along with the sometimes astonishing visual and dramatic devices which Pasolini brings to her – help to make Mamma Roma both very human and larger than life. This woman who has no name – she is only ever “Mamma Roma” – can be seen, on her most overtly metaphorical level, as Pasolini’s symbol of Rome itself, with all of its complexities and follies: religious, socioeconomic, even psychological. That level also brings her closer to Pasolini’s later mythic figures, like Oedipus Rex and Medea, than to her predecessor, the more straightforwardly Neorealist pimp Accattone.

Pasolini condenses those visual and thematic strategies in the climactic – and genuinely heartwrenching – death of Ettore. After being caught trying to steal a cheap alarm clock from a sick man in a hospital – talk about desperation – he acts up, and is thrown into a bare prison cell (architecturally, this could be read as an extreme extension of Mamma Roma’s sterile new apartment). Dying of fever, Ettore is strapped to what looks like a medieval torture device (although it was authentic, then still in use in Italian prisons).

ImageSome people wince at the obvious Christlike pose, although Ettore’s “crucifixion” is decidedly horizontal. But in addition to the Christian thematics the moment also represents Pasolini’s criticism of both the oppressive society and of human weakness. Ettore is a product of a spirit-crushing environment, but he’s also a lazy and aimless kid. On yet another level, we see the obvious, and intentional, connection between this moment and Pasolini’s passion for the sublime power of Renaissance art – in particular, Andrea Mantegna’s starkly ethereal painting, done about 1500, entitled “Dead Christ.” The poses are identical.

This tragic end to a young man we’ve come to care about (perhaps in spite of ourselves) also makes us question whether Ettore’s fate is due to his intrinsic nature or to his environment – both of which stem from his mother – or perhaps some combination of those factors.

There is also the suggestion not only of Ettore as a Christlike martyr but of his mother as a Madonna-like figure. There is clearly a religious quality not only to his suffering but to hers. But Pasolini ends by conflating Mamma Roma as much with the Classical tradition – like the climax of an ancient tragedy – as with the Christian. The devastated Mamma Roma runs down the street, pursued by the many people (shades of a Greek chorus) who want to help her. Those final shots of her at the window, staring out at the sterile ‘clean’ Roman world she longed to move into – her face contorted in unbearable pain at the loss of her son, whom she loved more than life – is in utter contrast to the boisterously laughing woman of the first scene.

Pasolini connects Mamma Roma as much with her earlier self as with mythic, literary, Christian, Marxist, Freudian and – most immediately, most powerfully – basic human experience. Fbootnotes aside, her emotions are something which all of us can understand, even if mercifully we have not known such pain.

Pasolini is not only a great thinker and artist, but fully – at times overwhelmingly – a deeply-caring member of the human race.

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  • Written and Directed by Pasolini
  • Produced by Alfredo Bini
  • Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
  • Edited by Nino Baragli
  • Art Direction by Flavio Mogherini
  • Set Decoration by Massimo Tavazzi
  • Makeup Artist: Marcello Ceccarelli
  • Hair Stylist: Amalia Paoletti
  • Production Manager: Eliseo Boschi
  • Production Supervisor: Fernando Franchi
  • Assistant Director: Carlo Di Carlo
  • Sound by Leopoldo Rosi & Renato Cadueri
  • Collaborator for Dialogue: Sergio Citti
  • Music:
    • Cesare A. Bixio & Luigi Cherubini, “Violino Tzigano”
    • Gaetano Donizetti, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“a stolen tear”) from the opera L’Elisir d’Amore (“the elixir of love”)
    • Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in D Minor

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  • Anna Magnani as Mamma Roma
  • Ettore Garofolo as Ettore
  • Franco Citti as Carmine
  • Silvana Corsini as Bruna
  • Luisa Loiano as Biancofiore
  • Paolo Volponi as the Priest
  • Luciano Gonini as Zacaria
  • Vittorio La Paglia as Mr. Pellissier
  • Piero Morgia as Piero
  • Franco Ceccarelli as Carletto
  • Marcello Sorrentino as Tonino
  • Sandro Meschino as Pasquale
  • Franco Tovo as Augusto
  • Pasquale Ferrarese as Lino
  • Leandro Santarelli as Begalo
  • Emanuele Di Bari as Gennarino, the worker
  • Antonio Spoletini as a Fireman
  • Nino Bionci as a Painter
  • Nino Venzi as a Client
  • Maria Bernardini as the Bride (Clementina)
  • Santino Citti as the Bride’s father
  • Renato Montalbano as a Nurse
  • Lamberto Maggiorani as a Sick Man
  • Renato Capogna as a Pimp (uncredited)
  • Mario Cipriani as a Thug (uncredited)
  • Renato Troiani as a Pimp (uncredited)

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Review: “La Ricotta”

February 19, 1963 (part of Ro.Go.Pa.G. anthology film) — 122 minutes (total for all four short films), color and black & white, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Comedy

Soon after Mamma Roma, Pasolini wrote and directed the delicious satire “La Ricotta” (yes, the title refers to the cheese) for the compilation film Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963), with the three other segments by Roberto Rossellini (Rome: Open City, Paisan), Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Week End), and Ugo Gregoretti (Omicron) – their abbreviated names make up the otherwise cryptic title.

In the written prologue which opens his film, Pasolini knowingly mentions the “biased, ambiguous and scandalized judgments” which he expected – although he could hardly have predicted the four-month prison sentence for “blasphemy” which he received, although it was later suspended.

“La Ricotta,” one of the funniest inside looks at movie-making I know, is the story of a temperamental, Marxist-ideology-spewing director (played by none other than Orson Welles – Citizen Kane himself – albeit with a dubbed Italian voice) trying to film the Passion of Jesus.

Pasolini, in his prologue, calls the Passion “for me the greatest event that has ever happened.” The film focuses, however, on the hapless bit-part actor Giovanni Stracci (his name literally means “Joe Rags”), trying to steal enough food from the film’s caterers to feed his family and himself in between playing the “good thief” who was crucified along with Jesus.

Like Mamma Roma, Stracci is a universal figure, but here the comedy goes even further, although in miniature. Stracci’s literally insatiable appetite – caused by both his debased social condition and his own unselfaware greed – leads to the unforgettable ending, which is equally hilarious and poignant.

“La Ricotta” makes explicit the religious themes of persecution and sacrifice in Pasolini’s two earlier features while introducing an even more overtly political theme. That ideology comes across not only in the director’s tirade to the uncomprehending reporter (played by the same actor, Vittorio La Paglia, who was the bamboozled restaurant owner in Mamma Roma) – in which he goes on, at length, about the hopelessly corrupt nature of the “conformist average man” – but through the comedy of Stracci’s scenes too. Pasolini makes that crystal clear when the actor playing Jesus (or rather, one of the actors – as we’ll look at in a moment) tells Stracci, with both of them nailed to their respective crosses and ready for their close-ups, “You’re always hungry, yet you stay with those who starve you.” Stracci does the equivalent of a shrug and says that that’s just his lot in life. Pasolini’s feelings about such self-destructive resignation come out clearly in the climax.

Speaking of Jesus here, the role seems to be played by two different-looking actors – a wiry one in the color scenes of Jesus being taken down from the cross, and a beefy one in the black and white scenes. This mystifying split, not only between the juxtaposition of deeply-saturated (almost abstract) color and black and white but between two seemingly disconnected – yet supposedly simultaneous – sequences points up Pasolini’s most important stylistic development. “La Ricotta” reflects his change from Neorealism to a more in-your-face symbolic and visionary style, which he uses in most of his later films. Also, this short picture highlights the rich vein of humor, often earthy, which runs throughout his entire body of work. We can also see reflections of his eclectic choices for two favorite filmmakers: Chaplin (The Gold Rush, City Lights) in the slapstick and overall pacing, and Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath) in the meticulous and thematically- and emotionally-rich pictorialism.

The oil on wood painting which Pasolini recreates is “The Deposition from the Cross” of Jacopo Carruci, known as Pontormo, from about 1528. (In art history, “Deposition” refers to the the motif of Jesus being taken down from the cross; on another historical note, Pasolini would have known that Pontormo, who defined the style of Mannerism, was also a gay artist, like the epoch-defining Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio.) Although I don’t want to turn this review into an art history lesson, it’s worth noting that Pontormo’s composition is a twisting knot of figures, and robes, all pivoting on the confused boy in the pink tunic at the bottom-center (like some High Art version of the game Twister). Impressive as this living tableau is, Pasolini also milks it for laughs – and maybe with more than a bit of self-mockery at his own artistic ambitions – by having this sacred pyramid come tumbling down. Everybody, including Ettore Garofolo (co-star of Mamma Roma) who’d been holding up Jesus, cracks up. That return to real life, and gutsy humor, is one of Pasolini’s strong points (although scarilegious to some), and it runs throughout all of his films.

Although I’m sure there are many possible readings not only of why there are color inserts in this film but of why Pasolini chose what he did for the effect, here is my suggestion. There are basically two subjects shot in color, and both reveal much about the filmmaker: the director may be played by Welles, but he is pure Pasolini (he’s even reading a hardcover book of Mamma Roma).

Besides the Deposition – which never quite comes off – we have a still life of food going to waste on the elaborate spread put out for the always-lounging, but never-working, stars. Of course, this feast ties in directly with Stracci’s (fatal) goal of getting as much to eat as he can. It’s also worth noting that that final (color) shot is the first of several gorgeous, and thematically resonant (even delicious beauty decays – and note the flies darting about), still lifes in Pasolini’s films. You might want to compare it to the one in The Decameron. A moment later, when he cuts to the main action in black and white, the effect is purposefully jarring.

Intriguingly, Pasolini opens – before zooming in at the end of the credits to the still life – with two handsome young male crew members, one bare-chested, doing a cha-cha-cha together in front of the feast. Later, when we see similar shots of crew guys and the food table, there is certainly no dancing. This puzzling disconnection leads me to suspect that the color shots reflect the subjective – perhaps even fantasizing – point of view of the film director.

Not only does he indirectly “out” himself as gay – with a vision the sexy guys dancing (the possible theme of sexual appetite connected with the scrumptious food on the table) – but the collapsing Deposition tableau indicates his ultimate lack of control, which further suggests his insecurity. On still another level, it may also indicate Pasolini’s playfully self-mocking comment on the folly of trying to duplicate one medium in another. Still another internal connection in the color scenes is the jaunty music, first heard under the guys dancing in the credits, turning up later as the wrong “mood music” for the Deposition: cha-cha-cha instead of the churchy Scarlatti piece the director wanted.

Significantly, all of the reverse angles of the color Deposition scenes makes it clear that those shots are absolutely impossible in the world of the rest of the film, which makes up over 90% of “La Ricotta.” Not only is there no soundstage – let alone a different actor playing Jesus (with his tastes, Pasolini would have found him less sexy than the well-chiseled man in the Deposition scene) – but the black and white scenes are all shot on a scorching mid-afternoon in an open field. In other words, there is a total disconnect between the reality of the black and white location shoot and the color “living tableau” scenes, which appear literally disembodied in a completely bare black room (presumably a soundstage – or is it some fantasy zone inside the director’s head?). You might think that we are supposed to assume that these two disparate plot strands represent different places and times, but everything in the black and white shots makes it clear that the director is stopping action on the Deposition scene.

There is much more to savor in this gemlike short comedy, from the many hilarious performances to the gorgeous cinematography (in both black and white and color) to an eclectic mastery of rhythm, from the tongue-in-cheek stateliness of the Deposition (before it collapses into a pile of rolling, giggling actors) to the speeded-up antics of the insatiably-hungry Stracci (reminiscent of the silent era comedies which Pasolini loved). But “La Ricotta” also looks ahead to one of cinema’s most beautiful and heartfelt masterpieces, which Pasolini spent years planning: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

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There are currently several Pasolini video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Paolini books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Pasolini link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.

Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

The Criterion Collection has created a two-disc DVD set with exceptional image and sound quality – the best I’ve seen for any Region 1 Pasolini release – and a wealth of excellent supplemental features. Also included is “La Ricotta,” one of Pasolini’s best and funniest short films (made immediately after Mamma Roma), as well as an hour-long documentary on his life and works.

  • Special Edition two-disc set
  • New high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound, enhanced for widescreen televisions. Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
  • Three new interviews about director Pier Paolo Pasolini, featuring: Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor), who was an assistant director to Pasolini on Accattone; Tonino Delli Colli, cinematographer on eleven of Pasolini’s dozen feature films; and Enzo Siciliano, author of Pasolini, a biography.
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini (1995), a 58-minute documentary by filmmaker Ivo Barnabò Micheli, offers a solid overview of Pasolini’s life and career, and features a generous number of extended clips from most of his major feature-length and short films, as well as archival footage of Pasolini discussing his own works. However, Micheli sees death as Pasolini’s overarching theme, and hence uses clips to support his contention (often revealing the ending of the film being profiled). But death is only one of several fundamental themes which runs throughout Pasolini’s work. Another documentary might have chosen the rather more hopeful primary theme of the survival, and sometimes triumph, of the outsider in a hostile world. Also, some viewers may be taken aback by a professorial-type interviewee’s reduction of Pasolini’s sexual orientation to, basically, a mother fixation. For decades now psychologists have viewed that Freudian theory, on what makes gay men gay, as simplistic and distorted. But overall, this documentary is a very useful one-hour introduction to the filmmaker, and the clips reveal the extraordinary range of his vision.
  • “La Ricotta” (1963), a 35-minute film by Pasolini starring Orson Welles as a director making a film about the Passion of Jesus.
  • Original theatrical trailer for Mamma Roma.
  • Poster and still gallery
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • 32-page booklet featuring excerpted interviews with Pasolini on Mamma Roma and “La Ricotta” (from the indispensable but out-of-print 1969 book Pasolini on Pasolini, edited by Oswald Stack) and essays by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana and Pasolini biographer Enzo Siciliano (who also played the Apostle Simon in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew).
Jim's Reviews / Pasolini
Jim’s Reviews / Pasolini

Reviewed July 12, 2004 / Revised October 16, 2020

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