“I love life so fiercely, so desperately, that nothing good can come of it.”
– Pier Paolo Pasolini (1960) (1)

“Pasolini (in his death) has successfully evaded the mortal synthesis, and reproposes around his corpse all the contradictions that characterised his multifarious activities.”
– Don Ranvaud (2)

Authorial Intertext

This article intends to provide both background information on Mamma Roma (1962), Pasolini’s second film, and contextualise the lack of unity, the “expressive clash”, in Pasolini’s work which renders him, as Naomi Greene suggests, “a more protean figure than anyone else in the world of film” (3).

Outlined below are the major discourses, as they circulated in Italian culture, within which Pasolini positioned himself during his lifetime (4).

Mamma Roma


Pasolini’s intellectual development was shaped by the humanism at the core of the Italian school program. Unlike his later struggles with Catholicism, Pasolini never really questioned his humanistic education. He gave “humanism” a positive connotation, relating it to the idea of history as the continual process of perfecting an abstract humanity. He regretted the advent of technocracy and consumerism with its concomitant loss of humanistic values. Humanism contributed to Pasolini’s lifelong self-perception of the “poet” and to his unflinching use, always in positive terms, of the word “poetic” to allude to the superior status of the image that is not straightjacketed into a single meaning. “Poetic” was the adjective that, according to him, best described the language “spoken” by reality and by cinematic images.


Catholicism was ingrained in him from childhood and continued to exert an influence over Pasolini’s thought. Deeply religious as an adolescent, he experienced intense mystical longings expressed in his diary. Messianic fervour prepared the terrain for his embrace of Marxism and Pasolini dedicated much time and energy to the reconciliation of the two. It nurtured his famed myth of innocence with which the peasantry, sub-proletariat and Third World represent existence outside of Western history. That Pasolini never really discussed the religious aspects in his first films “suggests deep ambivalence, even defensiveness, where his own faith was concerned” (5). 


Marxism challenged his religious faith and gave Pasolini the tools to think through the problems of oppression. His Gramscian version of Marxism (see below) provided an umbrella under which even some of the humanistic and Catholic principles dear to him could gather. He often stressed the contiguity between Marxism and Christianity.


By the mid-’60s Pasolini had enthusiastically subscribed to the Freudianism that had been widely, if superficially, circulating in Italian culture since the 1950s. Freudianism, like Marxism, constituted an attack on bourgeois ideology. Freud also offered Pasolini a clear and coherent “scientific” theory of the cause and nature of homosexuality.

Mamma Roma


If psychoanalysis provided Pasolini with the tools to talk about the body rationally, homosexuality gave him the certainty that the body is a purveyor of knowledge and had repercussions on the way he saw the oppressor/oppressed dialectic. Its discourse exposed Marxism’s inadequacy in addressing sexual oppression and led him to highlight the private sphere as the location for struggle.

Gramscian, National-Popular Phase of Pasolini’s Filmmaking (1961-66) 

When Pasolini started directing films in 1961, he had already worked on the scripts of some 15 other movies for directors like Federico Fellini and Mauro Bolognini. It was on the strength of his well-received and controversial Roman novels, Ragazzi di viti (1955) and Una vita violenta (1959), that he was first asked to work on scripts and many of the films he worked on as a writer are set in much the same milieu as his novels. That is also true of his first films as director, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma, which form a group with the two novels as much as with his subsequent films. It was the disappointment with the way his scenarios were directed by others that gave Pasolini the push he needed to make films himself (6).

Pasolini’s Marxist credentials, and his use of locations and non-professional actors in the portrayal of desperate lives comparable to that of the unemployed in Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica, 1948) or the poor fishermen in La terra trema (Luchino Visconti, 1948) first raised hopes amongst leftist critics of a socially-conscious neo-realist revival (only for them to subsequently discover that these apparent affinities masked profound differences). The “parabola of desperation and defeat… that might have been confined to the social sphere is imbued with a sense of tragic inexorability that virtually proclaims the futility of social and political struggle” (7).

Mamma Roma’s poverty stricken parents virtually sold her, at the age of 14, to an elderly husband. After her husband was arrested on their wedding day, she was forced onto the streets. As the film begins, after years of prostitution, Mamma Roma has accumulated sufficient savings to establish her son Ettore and herself in an apartment on Rome’s outskirts; he had grown up in the country with some relatives of hers. Ettore falls in with a gang of street kids and has his first sexual experience with the easily available Bruna, a sub-proletarian already corrupted by some petit bourgeois influences. Mamma employs blackmail to find Ettore a job. The unexpected return of her former pimp, Carmine, forces Mamma back into prostitution. Ettore, who was in college as a child and been educated by his mother to have a certain petit bourgeois outlook, is traumatised by finding out that his mother is a prostitute. Pasolini commented that, by way of contrast, a boy brought up in a completely sub-proletarian world “[would have given] her a gold watch so that she would make love with him” (8). Viano sees Ettore “as taking up and perfecting Accattone’s legacy”, his disaffection from reality, a form of metaphor for “obliquely lifting the mask on Italy’s heterosexual face”. Ettore’s actions, his “sleepwalking” (detachment) and illegality (thievery), point towards the homosexual subtext of the film “brought up by precise and yet furtive textual clues” such as the cha-cha-cha (Ettore’s dance with his mother) linking with the two stereotypical gay men during Mamma Roma’s night walk (9).

Accattone, the title character of Pasolini’s first film, is a pimp in the lowest strata of the poverty stricken Roman community – the borgate. He is linked by Pasolini to the figure of Christ and the events portrayed have a mythic quality. Mamma Roma’s origins are also in the lowest strata of Italian society, but unlike Accattone, she has petit-bourgeois ideals, and is trapped by the futility of petit-bourgeois morality.  Pasolini has described Accattone’s dreams as “epic-mythic-fantastic”. “The projection of his own life to a world beyond is mythic and popular, it isn’t petit bourgeois, it’s pre-bourgeois. The petit bourgeois ideals… in Mamma Roma [are] all petty, mundane ideals like a home, a job, keeping up appearances, the radio, going to Mass on Sunday.” (10)

In ennobling his lower class characters Pasolini shows their contradictions: they are victims but not passive and, as such, are not without dignity and complexity. Far more haunted by death than most neo-realist films, both Accattone and Mamma Roma are also overtly Christian in the intense way this is portrayed (what Pasolini called “the epical-religious”). This, too, must have disturbed leftists. Death is stressed even more in Mamma Roma than Accattone. The arrangement of the table at the opening wedding banquet in Mamma Roma suggests the Last Supper. Ettore’s agony is likened to that of the dead Christ in Mantegna’s painting Christo morto. Death for Pasolini “is important only if not justified and rationalized by reason… [assuming] the maximum of epicness and myth”. Pasolini agreed with Roland Barthes that the cinema should not try to make sense but suspend it. In keeping with this, his films “are not supposed to have a finished sense, they always end with a question” (11).

The “epical-religious” mixing of the Roman sub-proletariat with the music of Bach in Accattone scandalised the critics whereas the combination of Vivaldi, more Italian and popular, with the petit-bourgeois in Mamma Roma, was less confronting.

Greene refers to the precarious tension between passion and ideology that gives Pasolini’s films a special tone:

This tension inhabits his very first films, in which neorealist milieus and social concerns are filtered through a deeply religious, fatalistic sensibility. But at an even deeper level, as Pasolini suggested, this struggle or tension also gave rise to what was, perhaps, a “new stylistics”. And if this stylistic did not point to the future, neither did it accept the past: for even as it evoked what could be called the “aesthetic of neorealism”, as critics sensed uneasily, it also subverted it. (12)

Pasolini had an aversion to the illusion of naturalism that was at the core of neo-realism. Rather than linking things in a natural flow he isolates them, breaking the sense of spatial and temporal continuity. When he uses long takes, as in Mamma Roma’s night walks, they are stylised in a way that breaks the natural flow of things sought by many of the neo-realists. When characters are seated in groups he pans from one face to another, each person speaking to the camera, non-naturalistically and abruptly, rather than to each other. Greene borrows a metaphor from French critic André Bazin to highlight that “while the neorealists waited patiently for reality to unveil itself, a brutal Pasolini meets it head-on” (13). “Measured rhythms, slow camera movements, frontal shots, and long close-ups all create a stylized poetic universe that is, as Pasolini remarked, ‘a frontal, romantic, chiaroscuro world.’” (14)

Mamma Roma

Pasolini wanted to make his films exactly as he wrote poems or novels, “to be author of my own work at every moment”. He did not want to co-author films in the industry sense of transferring a script to the screen, and this included generally not using professional actors “who carry a consciousness with them, an idea of the character added to my own”. Pasolini nevertheless chose Anna Magnani for the role of Mamma Roma because she had been identified with Rome since her appearance in Roma, città aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945). There were apparently tensions between director and star as Pasolini tried to tone down the “excess” that is part of her cinematic persona: “I got her to do a woman of the people (popolana) and Anna Magnani just isn’t like that… I wanted to bring out the ambiguity of sub-proletarian life with a petit bourgeois superstructure… This didn’t come out. ” (15)

There was an “exterior stylistic element that did not belong in my world”. What does come out is “her [Magnani’s] body forever bursting its boundaries in the role of Mamma Roma, getting the better of her even as she tries to discipline herself and her son into the repressed, controlled ways of lower middle class respectability”. Her behaviour at the wedding banquet “is a travesty of proper behaviour… a travesty of the Last Supper which frames it and of the form of that supper in the Leonardo painting” (16). While Pasolini admitted that “it was a mistake on my part to believe that I could have taken her totally in my hands”, he also acknowledged that Magnani was a great actress and if he were to do Mamma Roma again he would probably go back to her (17).

The environments that were the settings of most of Pasolini’s films of the early and mid ’60s are situated on the Roman periphery called the borgate where populations were moved into public housing during the fascist period. This then developed into the progressive social housing experiments of the 1950s (the INA Casa scheme). Apparently working within its tradition, Pasolini used the borgate to critique neo-realism and the “architectural neo-realism” of Roman urban planning under fascism and during the postwar economic miracle in what he saw as the contemptuous treatment of Rome’s poor. The flat to which Mamma Roma brings Ettore is in a building designed with sham grandiosity, an empty exercise in urban design set to disguise its location in a neighbourhood barely more refined than the borgate rapidissime (the rapidly built suburbs on Rome’s periphery). Mamma Roma assures Ettore that they will be moving shortly to “a neighbourhood belonging to another class”. They are to move to the INA Casa Tuscolano project with its fostering of “false dreams of class mobility” (18).

While settling accounts with neo-realism in his first two films, Pasolini marked himself as the poet of the Roman borgate. His films of the mid ’60s were markedly different from his first films but also from each other except in the shared denominator of stylistic experimentation. What all the films of this phase share is a Gramscian inflection in their social and political concerns. After the war Pasolini felt he had found a kindred spirit in the writings of Antonio Gramsci. A founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci was rare amongst Marxist theorists in attributing a revolutionary role to the peasantry. He also urged intellectuals to abandon their traditional ivory towers to form “organic” links with the working class to lead cultural battles in the domains of the schools, the media and the arts with the intent of creating a new “national-popular culture” – “national” meaning not the nationalism of the nation-state but a sharing of history and traditions especially among the common people; and “popular” in the sense of popular culture, not populism.

Pasolini said that “the key by which I conceived Il vangelo secondo Matteo/The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)” and “that drove me to make it, was Jesus’ sentence in the Gospel that he has come ‘not to bring peace on earth… but to bring division, a man against his father, a daughter against her mother’ (Matt. 10:34).” (19)

Mamma Roma4

Pasolini’s final film of this phase, Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966), was the director’s farewell to the world of the sub-proletariat as well as to the first part of his oeuvre,  “a parting homage to the ideological and cinematic matrix of his formative years” (20). It is “a film about the end of ideology, the end of commitment” (21). Uccellacci e uccellini marks, for Pasolini, the final liquidation of neo-realism, the fading of the political hopes first represented by Gramsci and the Resistance partisans, and his moving progressively farther and farther away from neo-realism in the adoption of the parable form (either modern or set in an antique past). He regarded Uccellacci e uccellini as his “purest film” in the sense of being “the product of a cinematographic rather than a figurative culture, unlike Accattone(22).

After Uccellacci e uccellini Pasolini entered a phase of political withdrawal that happened to coincide with the upsurge in left-wing political life in 1968. Pasolini’s isolation was probably motivated by despair with what he saw as the incapacity of the PCI or the ultra-left to halt the “death dealing capitalist embourgeoisement of the world he loved” (23).

The subsequent phases of Pasolini’s filmmaking were: the end of ideology signified by a self-styled “aristocratic” or “unpopular” cinema with the appropriation of Greek myth in Edipo re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) and Medea (1969) and the contemporary fable in Teorema (1968) and Porcile (Pigsty, 1969); the “Trilogy of Life”, a dream world of “guiltless sexuality” that encompasses Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), Il racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972), Il fiore delle mille e una note (Arabian Nights, 1974), and Salò o le 120 giornate de Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975), the first of a proposed trilogy based on Dante’s model: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise.

A Cinema of Poetry

Pasolini’s first major essay on film, Il Cinema di poesia (1965), provided a theoretical map of his view of cinema and the poetic intuitions that marked his work.

From his first venture into filmmaking Pasolini spoke of simplifying, to the maximum, the objective simplicity of cinema: slow pans (“nothing more technically sacred”); frontality (“I always see backgrounds as backgrounds”); the separateness of shots; the absence of over the shoulder reverse angle shots; lenses “which weigh on things, emphasise their fullness, their chiaroscuro, give them density, often unpleasantly” – all deduced from what he saw as the elements in the essentially poetic nature of cinema based on “its expressive violence, its dream-like physicality” (24).

Pasolini saw tightly edited scenes in classical narrative as a kind of straitjacketed cinema of prose, or as Sam Rohdie puts it, “a fictional web, from which it is difficult to be free”, each shot and counter-shot closely motivated within the fiction. Pasolini used a variety of means – pastiche, quotation, citation, parody, analogy – “to pull the spectator out of a fictional logic, beyond the edge of the fiction, to its other side, to the ‘writing’ which produced it. Writing is always present in the Pasolinian fiction, not to destroy the fictionality of the fiction, but on the contrary to emphasise it by starring it.” (25)


  1. Pasolini quoted in Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini: A Biography, Random House, New York, 1982, p. 321.
  2. Don Ranvaud, “Salò or 120 Ways of Remaining Heretical”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 46, no. 548, September 1979, p. 204.
  3. Naomi Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1990, p. 126.
  4. These phases follow those outlined in Chapter One of Maurizio Viano, A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.
  5. Greene, p. 17.
  6. Pier Paolo Pasolini et al., “Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Epical-Religious View of the World”, Film Quarterly vol. 18, no. 4, Summer 1965, p. 41.
  7. Greene, p. 25.
  8. Oswald Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969, p. 53.
  9. Viano, pp. 97-8. Critics, then largely in “the screen closet”, missed Accattone (Italian for beggar) as an ironic metaphor for homosexuality (non-being, invisibility, illegality). This metaphor is continued through Ettore in Mamma Roma.
  10. Stack, p. 46.
  11. Stack, p. 56.
  12. Greene, p. 39.
  13. Greene, p. 41.
  14. Greene, p. 45.
  15. Stack, p. 49.
  16. Sam Rohdie, The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1995, p. 79.
  17. Pasolini, “Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Epical-Religious View of the World”, pp. 37-8.
  18. John D. Rhodes, Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p. 125.
  19. Viano, p. 133.
  20. Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema, 3rd ed., Continuum, New York, 2001, p. 184.
  21. Rohdie, p. 136.
  22. Stack, p. 99.
  23. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Pasolini’s Originality”, Pier Paolo Pasolini, ed. Paul Willemen, BFI, London, p. 18.
  24. Pasolini in Rohdie, p. 4.
  25. Rohdie, p. 3.

Mamma Roma  (1962 Italy 105 mins)

Prod Co: Arco Film Prod: Afredo Bini Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini Scr: Pier Paolo Pasolini [with dialogue collaboration by Franco Citti] Phot: Tonino Delli Colli Ed: Nino Baragli Art Dir: Flavio Mogherini

Cast: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini, Luisa Orioli, Paolo Volpone

About The Author

Bruce Hodsdon has contributed to Senses of Cinema since 2002 and is also a frequent contributor to the blog Film Alert.

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