I. An impulse to action sings of a semblance…
Mamma Roma, Pasolini’s story of an aging whore in for one last trick while guarding her son for his first, can allegorize without symbolizing: never letting one thing stand in for another without the second standing in for the first, Pasolini lets the two hold equal dialectical weight… but this is already confused. It’s possible to neatly tally all the ways a Pasolini movies holds stereoscopic visions—visual symmetries, reverse-shots-reverse-shots, or the explicit equation, in Mamma Roma, of the two lead characters to Christ and Rome, but, just as forcefully, the equation of Christ and Rome to his two main characters—while proposing at least two completely contradictory, but equally material approaches into his work. Pasolini does so himself, articulating his operative principle as both equation or division:
The first way suggests there are primal truths that, tapped into, will connect the characters to their mythic (agrarian) origins and, in a sort of transubstantiation, make them conduits to some higher power, voices of God in their physical acts:
“From the religious standpoint, I, who have always tried to recover the characteristics of religiosity from my laicism, find validity in two ingenuously ontological facts: Christ’s humanity is driven by such an inner strength, such an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and for verification of that knowledge, without fear of any scandal or any contradiction, that for it the metaphor ‘divine’ almost ceases to be a metaphor and becomes ideally a reality.” — Pasolini, c. 1964
The achievement of such a transformation, somehow Marxist and medieval both, would be to burst a historical framework. But the consciousness Pasolini espouses sounds less like a Marxist consciousness of material life as it’s lived relative to history, a consciousness that could foment a practical revolution by establishing the framework, than a Catholic consciousness of some visionary “inner” truth that is itself revolutionary when thought, and felt, and erupted onto an unexamined outer world—as in the sexual awakening of Teorema. As an artistic principle, this is allegory on a medieval model, in which bodies are the signatures of souls and cases aren’t illustrations of themes but their primal conception: as in Ovid or Dante, invoked in the hellish descents of both Accattone and Mamma Roma into a petty, criminal underworld, the transformation is an epistemological one, as people become a crystallization of their own thoughts. In this form of allegory, nearly satisfying Pasolini’s declarations of seeing myth in neorealism, Ettore, the central sixteen year old of Mamma Roma, is not just an innocent boy, as in an Apatow film, scared of sex and sanctifying it as love with ideas of who he’d like to be, but Innocence itself, a recurring, unthinking force in Pasolini movies neither driven forward by any motive but to wander nor cognizant of his place. Ettore's sense of character is entirely in his actions. When he drinks, steals, and sleeps with whores, his sins are the articulation of a nearly self-contained faith that never turns out to be transformative at all: the faith that he is free from the ties of the social world. Pasolini’s own allegory shows otherwise, but only while collapsing traditional dialectics—innocence and sin, mothers and whores—in on each other as mutual expressions of one another.
Yet Ettore, who can only be true to his innocence, misses the truths of the world around him, and ends up like a seduced princeling living the lives he’s offered: the girls who lure him, the busboy job his mother gets for him. His innocence makes him the puppet of his age, and we can wonder if there’s anything in this slum-world for Ettore, the sum of his actions, to be true to.
Here is Pasolini’s second approach, dialect and dialectics, not of expressing truths, but weighing material relativities against each other:
"His nostalgia for a mode of being that belongs to the past and will never be restored, and for a final victory of evil, is transformed into a kind of cosmic pity for those younger brothers destined to live from now on existentially, by values that to Pasolini seem intolerable... Speaking generally, one might say that Pasolini loves reality; but still speaking generally, one might also say that Pasolini does not love—with a love equally total and profound—truth: perhaps because, as he says, 'the love of truth ends by destroying everything, since there is nothing true.' Might we then conclude by stating that this refusal to know, to seek, to want the truth, any truth (any nonrelative one, since Pasolini continually and quixotically fights for partial truths), this Oedipal terror of coming to know and admit, is what determines the strange and unhappy fortune of this book, and probably of all Pasolini's work?" — Pasolini on Pasolini's Transumanar e Organizzar, 1971
Pasolini’s characters strive to recover their prelapsarian origins, a Renoir romanticization of wine and wheatfields, but can only do so in the terms of sin; so they try to deny their other origins, their parents’ world from which they’ve sprung. But it’s the priest himself in Mamma Roma who offers Ettore a job as a laborer, a practical job, while his mother has dreams he’ll be able to be whoever he wants to be: “you can’t make something out of nothing,” says the priest, opposing Christ’s own claims with material necessity.
So on the one side, pure souls; on the other, characters alienated from themselves. On the one side, innocents who can only be true to themselves, who create their own reality; on the other, characters so much creations of a social reality that they're lost to themselves altogether.
By now, everything is confused. Pasolini’s characters seem to struggle to find their place in the world and deny it simultaneously. Even these terms aren't mutually exclusive. Either way characters are material signposts of some deeper reality: the philosophical question of whose matters less than a pragmatic one of how.
II. Related is equated…
What’s strange about Mamma Roma’s construction is that the contracting trials and profane corruptions endured by Mamma Roma and her son Ettore—as she joins the whores, she buys them for her son—only seem to affirm both mother and son's immaculacy. Where in a standard, Fellini coming of age story, characters endure a slow awakening to the brutalities of teenage emotions, each realization stressing the depth of their innocence hitherto, Pasolini, with the exception of a scene of Ettore watching his whore love go off with his friends, stresses their innocence in their lack of realization, their continuing blindly to do as they please: an innocence in sin. By the end, Ettore has been shackled to a board in city prison for stealing an alarm clock in a hospital, but his doomed struggle against his chains shows a teenage Christ who acts more like Oedipus, a sensate member within the material world vying to get out, than a standard image of Christ, suffering for a race to which he doesn't belong. Ettore, like other Pasolini heroes, and the Ninetto Davoli’s patsy recurring in Pasolini’s later films as the only hope of laughter, is a martyr to reality: a holy fool, for a conflicted Marxist director, who springs hope in wine, women, and song only as long as he’s unconscious of the ways of the world.
But at the same time, the movie makes the Bicycle Thief equation of original sin to social privation:Ettore is a sinner and a thief because he lives in a world of sin where everyone has to steal to live, and sex, even here, is treated as a form of commodity exchange; girls are passed among friends and called sluts by whores. When Ettore is finally crucified, looking up toward a light he can’t reach, Pasolini can belabor the iconographic equivalencies to Christ because he’s not Jesus Christ, but a modern transformation: just a boy, like so many Pasolini heroes, who suffers for the sins of humanity because they’re his own sins as well. He suffers for himself, but it is, paradoxically, that suffering that’s the image of innocent resistance. The distinction between Ettore as saint and material product collapses as he’s made to suffer for keeping alive.
Again things are confused; Pasolini’s world is about as clear in its morality as The Garden of Earthly Delights. To even call Ettore’s sins sins is to assume the same moralism of Ettore’s bourgeois shacklers exposed and condemned by the movie, but Pasolini is still as bourgeois a moralist—and, self-crucifying, openly so—as Fellini: Mamma Roma, Anna Magnani, legs spread, spitting curses, is as much a vital fount of insurgent sexuality as Terrence Stamp in Teorema, but she’s also a double-hanky Stella Dallas fighting to feed her son, vying to go legitimate as a street-cart vendor, and forced by a buoying past to take back to the streets. Pasolini’s craft, in a movie that constantly conflates the mother with the whore, isn’t just in dovetailing the sacred and profane—a long history of medieval art, the battle between carnival and lent—or neorealism and myth: by Mamma Roma, the winesick mood of innocence and sin entwined in bacchanalia, and the tragedy of horny youth in a world of social liabilities all could come from Fellini’s early melodramas. But where Fellini’s movies pine for libidinous backwaters still breeding country wolves themselves pining after myths of urban cigarette-girls, Pasolini’s nostalgia for agrarian origins is for a myth, however much replayed by his characters, on the other side of an industrialized Italy, one that will never be recovered. Mamma Roma is embedded in this concept of original sin: that the origins of life are in sin, that sin lays the compass points of modern life, but also that sin is an original creation of men’s minds to which the innocent flock, Ettore and Mamma Roma, living life as they’re told, may stay blind. Yet even this latter notion is tied to Catholic guilt.
Where Fellini fictionalizes modern life as a fairy tale, Pasolini mythologizes modern life as an ongoing fall from grace, an exile from fairy tales:
“Don’t you realize that the world
of which I am the blind
and loving son
was not your son’s
soft with dreams, armed
with goodness—but an ancient
land of others that to life
imparts the anxiety of exile?”
There’s no myth without exile, a primal cut from the projected origins which could restore one’s place in the world, and Pasolini’s montage is appropriately at its most disjunctive between spectator and vision in the Greek films, Oedipus and Medea, where this is the open theme of characters denying the world they’re given. Yet Pasolini mythologizes city life not as a search for paradise but a yielding, in characters, both Ettore and Mamma Roma, who slowly abandon selfish hopes to a selfish world and are finally forced to realize their place within it. The force of this restoration to the world they were born in is, as in Oedipus, that they become exiled from themselves, from their innocent, Catholic souls kept immaculate from the world.
Or do they? What's still novel about Mamma Roma, like Rossellini’s films, is Pasolini’s Catholic faith in reality: that people don’t represent character types and personality traits, but are living expressions standing only for themselves. Ettore is less an innocent character than a force of innocence, one without any indication of interior life, because Pasolini treats his innocence not as an idea but an action: trusting the soul as a physical expression, he leaves Ettore to be the sum of his gestures, stretching his arms, shrugging his shoulders, grinning, wincing, and the film proceeds almost as a documentary of gestures that, though the product of a more casual age, only signify themselves, moving through time oblivious to the surrounding world.
Again it’s impossible to divide off Pasolini’s medievalism from his materialism, and even this belief that people can be themselves is laid against material exigencies that they perform social functions.
Mamma Roma culminates in a line of corrective institutions—jail, hospital, church—instilling a cold protocol to the characters’ lives. Pasolini matches with his own austerity, complicit in the mathematical patterning of both hospital beds and chorus lines of medieval saints. Against the give-and-take of a scrapbook-like montage accumulating details, folding street characters into the scene for single shots and letting them go by the next, panning with the wind as characters run through fields, Pasolini plays Baroque, Vivaldi here as Bach in Accattone, for a measured rhythm, and frames in his famous frontal figurations that treat characters as two-dimensional frescos on a wall, a Byzantine line of bodies individual only in their faces. That Pasolini throughout his movies, with different emphasis in different places, can link these primitive geometries to both a post-Holocaust, mechanization of people as body-instruments, and to a history of Christian art, a genuine search for salvation, is some measure of his movies' power. The impulse becomes the same, religious and physical, in people trying desperately to be beyond themselves and their lives of petty cash, to subordinate themselves to ties of filial piety and the land; but who are only able to seek that power from within their own bodies and to subordinate themselves either to social custom or, similarly, to a rationalist origami of personal sexual functions. Taming is the wildest act in Pasolini, the subjection to a pure, aesthetic formalism, but also a sign in Mamma Roma, soon to disappear from Pasolini’s movies, that blessings are the work of the director: the drunken kids trotting to get laid have no idea of the benediction upon them when accompanied by Vivaldi. Such are the trials of rigor on an impossible path to privation and private grace: the music of Vivaldi, and the rituals of joking, songs, and sex, in 1962.
Pasolini’s neorealism concerns traditional dialect and ceremonies, but less the material accoutrements of everyday living, the ways they bathe and shit; the movie achieves a sort of clarity in its abstractions, as in the famous shots of Magnani floating nowhere against a grate of streetlights while she reminisces to a chorus of hustlers on a ghetto architect who made a shantytown of toilets for Mussolini. Magnani, Mamma Roma herself, is not a simile for Rome or a representation of Rome, and she’s no more a product of the film’s Rome than it seems to be of her. She simply is Rome, as anyone else in the movie might be, its voice of curses, prayers, exploitation, consumption, nostalgia, and care: most of which seem to exist through her articulation.
The city lives in the film as her accumulation of personal experience, even as the community uses and rejects her, and she retreats, like a good Roman, to creature comforts. Fellini characters can fight against a reality of broken marriages and dusty streets for wet dreams of the circus, but Pasolini, even in his first films, makes no such distinctions: life is a material dream, a world they move through without ever finding their place in it. Their dreams are only of and expressed in the material life around them: the mother and son dancing by a window, and later, taking a ride on a motorcycle.
What’s a dream and what’s life, what’s spiritual and what’s physical, doesn’t really matter in Pasolini’s dialectics: the religious music of Vivaldi is as much an inflection on the horny teens as the horny teens inflect Vivaldi's religious music, whose inevitable tonal progressions become, in Momma Roma, the onward flight of boys, mostly going nowhere and occasionally to the bodies of girls. Pasolini depends on dialectics to upend dialectical movement: “What is the origin of hope, I mean both Marxist and bourgeois hope? They both stem from a common matrix: Hegel. But I am against Hegel. Thesis? Antithesis? Synthesis?... My dialectic is no longer ternary; instead it is binary. There are only irreconcilable oppositions. There, no ‘sole dell’avvenire,’ no better future” (1971). Already in 1962, most of Mamma Roma is shot in a basic shot-reverse-shot, spectators and the things they see in Rome, so frontal that the shots never overlap, and, compounded by dubbing, making spaces into monads that never seem to link at all: an ‘amateur’ style that would become a methodology of disconnects by the late ‘60s, as each new reverse-shot of a landscape becomes a transformation of another. In the final rally of shots set to an even beat, a congregation of the movie’s hustlers huddle toward a window to look out on the city with its gilded Church dome among brutalist projects: the movement of the people, intimate, against the solidity of concrete miles. It’s like L’Argent twenty years later: do they await something that doesn’t move, and is it grace or their neighborhood slums? Pasolini’s neat balance makes it seems like they don’t belong to their own city, even as they seem to become it.
The terms are still tongue-tied. “The cinema of Pasolini,” said Jean-Louis Comolli about Mamma Roma, “is, like all poetry, a transaction.”
A lot of these notes on Catholic guilt could probably apply as well to Abel Ferrara’s movies: grace through profanity, the transubstantiation of the soul through dick, meeting the maker—power and subordination—through sex, but also the seemingly off-the-cuff scenes of layabouts giving each other shit conceived in formal austerity. Mulberry St. is like a take-off of Pasolini's scenes of Magnani street-walking, talking to whoever will listen in an ebb and flow of anonymous disciples. Ferrara’s taking to the streets himself, collapsing filmmaker and personality, becoming a roaming bard through New York's Little Italy trading stories with whoever he finds, is enough to justify inclusion of whatever he likes into his movie as a record of personal experience. Occasionally cuts move through the Lower East Side, through a couple hours and half a dozen drinks, to reveal Ferrara with accumulated hanger-ons like a grindhouse pied piper.
What Ferrara likes are what seem like the only authentic New Yorkers left in New York: where Chelsea on the Rocks evinces Ferrara’s conservativism, his piety for privileged visionaries racked by a real world of corporate practicalities, grocery shopping, laundry, and paying bills, Mulberry St.’s vanishing New York shows his equal socialism, a collective of street workers, short-order chefs, and casino crooners inhabiting a gentrified theme park for Godfather towels. Ferrara bitches about producers and the cock stand-in he hired to fuck his girlfriend in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy who couldn’t get it up, and leaves room for waitresses to shill cannolis and friends with nicknames like Butchie the Hat and Cha-Cha to try to explain the recession in terms of $20 loans. Ferrara edits sort of like the dialogue, a spout of peddled coercions (“you wanna see the church? Let’s see the church”), and circles around the days Tony Danza was a prizefighter; his own neorealism is, like Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym last year, a hokey, all-American view of paradise as a community of workers who have kidded each other into types and personalities. Cha-Cha’s ballad is the sort of drunken dialect, the traditions of a time and place, that was the norm in Raoul Walsh’s era and is impossible to see in American movies today:
Ferrara: These pricks don’t even realize it—Danza would be ten times richer if he stuck with you. You know what I mean? Fuck them all.
Cha Cha: Fuck them all, fuck them all,
Fuck the long, the short, and the tall
The big and the brave and the big and the brave
Oh, but oh fuck them all.
With their grubby digital, sun-bleached background light, flat-black silhouettes of interviewees in the foreground, and single objects in full colors caught between, Mulberry St.and Zhao Liang’s Petition have kind of the simplicity of an Edison film: a landscape in miniature and the person reacting to it stationed in front. Portraits of places through the personalities of the place, they offer a sort of possibility for digital filmmaking that may already be lost with the clarity of high-definition: gestural documentaries, close-ups on physical motions, reactive tics, and dialect against a larger, foggier landscape that contains however many similar cases. In their emphasis on cultural expression, verbal and physical, in place of psychology, event, or architecture that all are just more backstories, they’re the real heirs to a movie like Mamma Roma.
Pasolini texts cited in Raffaele Donato’s “An Introduction to Pier Paolo Pasolini,” and Cesare Casarino’s “Oedipus Exploded: Pasolini and the Myth of Modernization” (October, Vol. 59, Winter, 1992). Jean-Louis Comolli quote from Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 169, August 1965.
Images: Mamma Roma, Oedipus Rex, Mulberry St., Petition
My special thanks, as always, to Charles Silver at MoMA for assistance with research.