Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini takes us to the outskirts of life and challenges our assumptions in the moving and intelligent Mamma Roma. Almost a mix of Nights of Cabiria with Mildred Pierce, this thoughtful tale of a woman who will do anything for her son leaves nothing at face value, and pulses with the confusion and pain of everyday life.

Anna Magnani gives a captivating performance as Mamma Roma, a former prostitute who saves up to move with her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) to Rome, where she wants to begin a new chapter in life. She renounces her past and takes on operating a vegetable cart in the piazza market, and she encourages Ettore to go to school to mingle with the right sort of neighborhood kids.

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Ettore’s path takes a different turn, however. He becomes smitten with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a young woman already with child. His friends tease that she goes out with “everyone,” but Ettore doesn’t mind, and forges a tender connection with her. Mamma Roma doesn’t approve of the match either, and urges him to forget about her and take on a respectable job as a waiter in Trastevere.

Through all its ups and downs, Mamma Roma is consistently engaging for its rich, authentic portrayal of real, complex characters. Mamma Roma herself is a loud, boisterous prostitute one moment, and an affectionate forward-thinking mother the next. The girl Bruna is frequently attacked for her reputation despite her mostly angelic demeanor; then when Ettore is beaten down and his weakness revealed, she laughs in his face and joins the other boys. Characters ebb and flow and take on different roles throughout the story, rejecting stagnant personalities for more genuine, complicated impulses when facing trying circumstances.

Its deep respect for everyday life is heightened through the fluid religious undertones. Mamma Roma is often portrayed as a Mary figure, dedicating her life to her son and suffering the terrible loss that befalls him. Ettore is the Christ, driven by some innate destiny and is even held strung with his arms open in a prison. Bruna could be the Magdalene, to whom Ettore is drawn despite what society may think of her.

Pasolini’s films are anything but ordinary, and the humanism and authenticity flowing through Mamma Roma elevate what could have been some weepy melodrama into intelligent and thought-provoking art.

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Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

The most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen, both in content and the hard truths it presents.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is a not-too-far-fetched allegory about four  libertines toward the end of Italian fascism. These four powerful men kidnap eighteen young men and women and transport them an isolated house in the countryside. During the titular 120 days they spend there, the men rape, assault, abuse, and dehumanize the youth in increasingly vile and horrifying ways. One of the most memorable scenes is one in which a libertine defecates on the floor, and forces one of the women to eat it. The camera does not look away.

This is one of many squirm-in-your-seat moments that never seem to give up in this movie. When the visuals of the film aren’t stimulating your gag reflex, however, the dialogue and mood of the film are just as troubling. An older woman who helps runs things at the house cheerfully recounts stories of her youth, in which she too was subjected to terrible acts. Now, as an older woman though, she laughs it away and accepts it as perfectly normal.

Such is a recurring theme throughout the film. As the 120 days progress, the victims become less like themselves and more like the captors who subject them to such cruelty. The movie begins with all the youth on equal ground but by the end, they turn against each other, even torturing and raping each other. They fulfill one of the film’s most profound quotes, “Nothing’s more contagious than evil.”

Salo is not an easy film to get through and it’s not one I would necessarily recommend. It is not for everybody and nothing can really prepare you for it. If you do have the stomach for it, however, it is certainly worthwhile and thought-provoking. It is a testament to how powerful, albeit shocking, film can be.