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Living on the Edge of Reality: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and Leftist Nostalgia

“You can only see what happens, then plot your next move. This requires being prepared – strategically and emotionally – to abandon ways of thinking and acting to which you may have become deeply attached. In that sense, nostalgia is a barrier to any truly emancipatory politics.”

Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex

Or is it? This is one of the central questions that Pier Paolo Pasolini asserts, rather than asks, across his filmography. Born into a Bolognese petty bourgeois family in 1922, Pasolini began his artistic career as a poet and novelist. It was only after the Second World War he began to pursue film. A new found zeal is evident in Pasolini, working on a new project every year between 1961 and his death in 1975. The work, however, can sometimes appear secondary to the man. Pasolini is often porytayed as wedged in contradiction – Catholic, anti-clerical, gay, Communist, anti-’68 . This is not to mention his death was apparently at the hands of the mafia. Yet of the series of vivid images Pasolini conjures in a set of interviews during 1965, it is his recollection of his childhood relationship with his parents that stands out. Pasolini’s “excessive, almost monstrous love” for his peasant-born mother is matched with an equally visceral “hatred” for his bourgeois father. It is this disturbing love, both for his mother and the past she represents, that simmers away in Mamma Roma (1962). 

Still, Mamma Roma is as much of its time as its author. The plot follows the struggle of the titular character – once a prostitute, now an aspirant petit bourgeois – endeavouring to provide a materially stable life for her son, Ettore, after his return from the country to Rome.

Film poster of Mamma Roma in English. Source: IMDb

Mamma Roma’s desires were far from unique. The existence of acute poverty in agrarian Southern Italy alongside postwar economic success in the urban-industrial North saw many trying to scrabble their way up the country and the economic-social ladder. Such a movement was extreme in the Italian context. Before and immediately after the Second World War Italy was, despite the best attempts of successive centralised governments, constituted by hundreds if not thousands of local dialects and cultures. The inefficient state representatives alongside a fundamentally fragmented agrarian system meant the South was especially diverse. However, the postwar boom and state-(American)-led modernisation posed the “threat” of homogenisation and embourgeoisement to even the most fringe locales. It is these tensions that Pasolini draws on. The way he does so demands little exposition (mother-son, prostitute-bourgeois); it is his resolution of them that remains hopelessly ambiguous. 

“My hatred for the bourgeoisie is not documentable or arguable.” But for Pasolini it remained “total and unmitigated”. This hatred for bourgeois cultural homogeneity is clear in Mamma Roma. The struggles and ultimately failures of Mamma Roma’s life come from a desire to be what, apparently, she is not. However, it is Ettore, who internalised the bourgeois outlook the most, suffers with greatest severity. Pasolini was himself a bourgeois by birth, although his mother had been born a peasant. His awareness of the distance between them, crucially the potential “unintelligibility” of his mother because of it, secured Pasolini’s place in the canon. Ever so crudely put, Italian neorealism sought to represent reality while eradicating that it was a ‘representation’. Pasolini, reactively, saw things differently. For him, films should be obviously artificial, mimetic to the point of parody. Consequently, Mamma Roma is over the top. Ettore’s is opaque and his actions can verge on incoherent. This disjointedness was necessary because for Pasolini anything else could only be dishonest. Pasolini highlights the gap between audience, the director, and even the actor from the person they mime. In this way he  reacted against the cultural homogenisation and standardisation he hated.   

Mamma Roma’s incoherence and sensuousness also gives it an oneiric quality. This underlines the film’s anti-materialistic stance. Pasolini was not alone in postwar Italy – or Europe for that matter – in his anxiety that the future held a “contentless freedom”. With no values or principles, how were future Europeans to make meaningful decisions. They might, like Mamma Roma, be reduced to a vulgar materialism. Pasolini’s relationship with Christianity is complicated, but it suffices to say here that he wanted to restore a sacredness to the world. He did so by refusing to communicate simplistically or directly, instead leaving things to be appreciated for visual or sensuousness qualities. This applies to people as much as objects or ideas. In this way fringe lives – of thieves, pimps, prostitutes, and so on – become sacred and innocent since they do not signify anything. In that way they are a type of preconscious, or at least outside a simplistic bourgeois moral framework. Sacredness is further imposed by pastiches of Christ and other biblical imagery. However, incoherence and ambiguity underpin Pasolini’s in another sense. 

“When I spoke . . . about reading Marxist texts,” Pasolini recalled in 1965, “the most important, even more important than Marx himself, was Gramsci.” Pasolini was, by his own admission, unconventionally communist. The Italian Community Party (PCI) agreed completely, ejecting him in 1949. Gramsci’s influence partly accounts for Pasolini’s concern with subculture. Both believed that the hegemonic culture was the culture of the ruling oppressors. Consequently, any radical political project must challenge it. In this way Pasolini wanted to celebrate the fringe lumpenproletariat; he elevated not only their culture but their lifestyles and morality. However, it is unclear whether Pasolini was ever really concerned with looking forward. His films often fetishize a notion of the Edenic, a prelapsarian origin, before the corrupting forces of language and consciousness. Moreover, Pasolini’s belief that the interiority of others was unreachable could sometimes lead to portrayals that mock rather than mime. In his concern to celebrate the lumpenproleteriat’s innocence, they are portrayed as quasi-animalistic. Pasolini can indeed often appear radical, but not in an entirely emancipatory way. 

But those were the tensions of Pasolini’s time. He expressed them well and certainly warrants his place on the postwar Europe Further Subject set texts. But it is how we see him now that I want to return to. The ambiguous relationship between leftism and nostalgia is as pressing now as it was then (back to the 1970s?). It is the special job of the leftist historian to be prudent in the dual calls to combat the “enormous condescension of posterity” while also ensuring a Forward March of emancipation does not halt. It is, of course, best when these projects align. Perhaps we see glimmers of this in Pasolini.   

Further Reading 

Mamma Roma (1962) (

Marcus, M., Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (2020)

Stack, O., (ed.) Pasolini on Pasolini  (1969)

Rohdie, S., The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1995)Ginsborg, P., A History of Contemporary Italy, 1943-80 (1990)