Made in 1962 but not commercially available in the U.S. until this year, Mamma Roma finds Pier Paolo Pasolini battling the influences he simultaneously salutes. Sort of a sequel to Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist masterwork, Rome, Open City, the film presents a woman like that film’s heroine (played by the same actress, fiery Anna Magnani) 17 years later. In Rossellini’s film, the woman is killed while pregnant; in Roma, she lives, and is the mother of a 16-year-old son.
Though filmed mostly in a bleak Roman suburb with nonprofessional actors, Roma declares its distance from neorealism’s strictures with its first scene, in which a wedding is staged to look like the Last Supper of many Renaissance paintings. (In his emulation of classical canvases, Pasolini presaged Jarman and Greenaway.) Roma mockingly salutes the bride and groom—and their country—by bringing in three hat-wearing pigs and identifying them as Italy’s three brothers, a reference to the national anthem. Her jeering toast underscores the film’s implication that the hopes of Italy’s postwar generation have already died.
The groom, Carmine (Franco Citti, the star of Pasolini’s previous film, Accatone), is Roma’s former pimp, and his marriage seems to liberate her. She collects the teen-age son who’s been living in the country and moves him to Rome, where they live in a bleak new apartment building surrounded by ruins. (The historic Rome exists only in a frequent shot of its distant skyline.) For Roma, it’s a new beginning, and she abandons prostitution for a vegetable stand in the market. But her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo, a Leonardo DiCaprio precursor) is not looking to start over. The aimless young man simply finds a new group of troublemakers to hang out with, and soon has a girlfriend of whom his mother disapproves.
Roma devotes herself to her son, and calls on both the church and her underworld friends to get Ettore a job. (Naturally, it’s the latter who succeed.) Juggling Marx and the Virgin Mary as he would throughout his career, Pasolini portrays Roma and Ettore as Madonna and child in a world without God. Ultimately, the feverish Ettore dies while strapped to a prison table in the pose of the crucified Christ—a powerful religious image that Pasolini derived from the true-life account of a young man who had recently died under such circumstances. (This scene is probably among the ones that got Roma hauled into court as “offensive to good morals,” a rap it eventually beat.)
Pasolini’s imagery would subsequently become much more baroque, but at the time of Roma his work was still intimate with real life. There are autobiographical elements to Roma’s story (she says she left her husband, a fascist, and came to Rome, as Pasolini’s mother did), and neorealist ones to the film’s technique. Both Magnani, a neorealist icon, and Pasolini show themselves capable of intense stylization, however. Magnani’s Roma is a larger-than-life character, a maternal force that suggests Euripides more than Rossellini. And Pasolini tops the elegant contrivance of the opening scene with a long tracking shot in which Roma walks the streets in lush nighttime, explaining her life to characters who casually arrive and depart the frame.
Magnani and Pasolini reportedly fought while making Roma, but their disagreements seem to have been for the best. Her robust presence provides a striking contrast to the stars of the director’s other early films—he generally preferred to spotlight sullen young male beauties like Garofolo—and her emotionalism sets off his sophisticated compositions. Like the contrast between the director’s neorealist heritage and his growing mannerism, Magnani and Pasolini’s clashes produced not discord but a resonant dialogue.
The Perez Family has an iffy beginning and an awkward ending, but what happens in between is surprisingly engaging. Expanding the study of multiculti America she began with Mississippi Masala, Indian-American director Mira Nair plays the Mariel boatlift for laughs—and almost gets away with it.
Adapted by scripter Robin Swicord from a novel by Christine Bell, the film begins in 1980 Cuba, and not too promisingly. Former sugar-cane-plantation owner Juan Perez (Alfred Molina) is released from prison and shipped off to Miami, where his wife Carmela (Anjelica Huston) and daughter Teresa (Trini Alvarado) have lived for the last 20 years. On the same boat is Dorita Perez (Marisa Tomei), a lubricious plantation worker and part-time prostitute who’s not related to Juan; obsessed with Elvis Presley and John Wayne, she wants to experience firsthand the pop-culture smorgasbord of the U.S.A.
The new arrivals are interned in a football stadium and informed by an immigration officer (Masala veteran Ranjit Chowdhry) that their chances of getting a sponsor, and thus leaving the impromptu camp, will be better if they’re members of an extended family. Chagrined that his wife hasn’t come to find him, Juan is too busy moping to take action. The hyperkinetic Dorita, however, starts lining up other Perezes: She appoints Juan as her husband, adolescent hustler Felipe as their son, and an eccentric, mute old man as Juan’s father. Soon, the foursome has a home at a local church and a job selling flowers on the street; merrily rolling her hips, the volcanically flirtatious Dorita proves particularly good at seizing the attention of passing motorists.
This new nuclear family has its problems: The grandfather likes to take off his clothes and climb trees; Felipe is desperate to pay off his debt to a local crimelord (Crispin Glover at his Crispin Gloverest); Juan travels to an affluent suburb to see Carmela, who doesn’t recognize him, and fights his growing attraction to his new “wife.” After a fling with a callous blond-god security guard, even the vivacious Dorita finds America disillusioning.
Meanwhile, finally reconciled to the fact that Juan will never arrive, Carmela allows herself to indulge an infatuation with a police officer, Pirelli (Chazz Palminteri), much to the annoyance of his temporary partner (Saturday Night Live‘s Ellen Cleghorne). Eventually, Juan and Carmela will be reunited, and Juan must choose between his wife and Dorita, a no-win narrative situation; the film’s ending, though not drastically different from the novel’s, seems abrupt and contrived.
Everything about Family is contrived, of course, and it’s much to Nair’s credit that the proceedings are mostly buoyant. She intercuts the events of the two Perez families—Dorita’s and Carmela’s—as effectively as she juggles the film’s melodramatic and farcical strains. Marked by piquant asides and cameos (including Cuban musical star Celia Cruz as a medicine woman), the film portrays America as a winningly unpredictable cultural bazaar.
Someone else deserves significant credit for Family‘s effervescence: Tomei, who turns in her most ingratiating performance since My Cousin Vinny. Dorita’s first appearance as an oversexed Yankeephile is not promising, but over the course of the film Tomei manages to amplify the character, making her both more interesting and more likable than the script alone could have managed. Ultimately, Tomei’s enthusiasm for the role becomes indistinguishable from Dorita’s for America, a happy confluence that animates the film agreeably until its unsatisfying final minutes.
As if to prove that Hollywood’s fancies really can affect people’s lives, the machinations of films like The Player and Barton Fink culminate in murder. So too in two new movie-biz black comedies, Swimming With Sharks and Search and Destroy, which curiously open in tandem this week at the Key. In the former, the escalation to homicide perverts the tone of an effective satire; in the latter, it hardly matters.
Sharks was written and directed by George Huang, who worked in several jobs like the one held by his hero, Guy (Frank Whaley). Huang says he derived only 20 percent of the film’s incidents from his own career, but consulted other Hollywood assistants for additional anecdotes. The result was Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), the bullying, backstabbing Keystone Pictures executive who runs Guy’s life—and insists the young man should be grateful for the experience. “You miserable little crybaby,” barks the breathtakingly dislikable Buddy when Guy dares complain about his tasks, which include getting an executive who’s white-water rafting on the phone immediately, arranging Buddy’s midnight dates with desperate starlets, picking up his Rogaine, and destroying every copy in L.A. of an issue of Time magazine that includes an unflattering reference to his boss.
When Sharks opens, Guy has survived his job long enough to pass as an insider. He seems to relish his position, but he’s about to crack, and a series of flashbacks shows why. Buddy’s withering lecture on the difference between Sweet’n Low and Equal, delivered in Guy’s first 15 minutes on the job, would be enough to send most new employees home in shock. Guy perseveres, though, and even makes himself essential to Buddy by making a deal for a new youth-culture script and hot young director (whose name, Foster Kane, is one of Huang’s few overt gags).
The ambitious yet naive Guy joins Keystone because of his screenwriting ambitions, but stays because he meets Dawn (Michelle Forbes), a hard-shelled producer who turns out to have a heart of something other than celluloid. Improbably, Guy captures that heart, and the two plot the success of the script she’s brokering. Buddy is an unapologetic misogynist—“Avoid women directors. They ovulate,” he commands—and doesn’t take the relationship seriously. Guy, however, does.
Dawn is the least credible of the characters in the essential trio, and figures in the scenario’s eventual undoing. Guy takes his boss hostage and tortures him, and the revelations that tumble out of the two of them during the violent encounter session are mostly unconvincing. This leads to an ending that posits the most cynical possible solution to Guy’s antagonism toward Buddy. Ultimately, though, Sharks doesn’t care what happens to Guy and Dawn. It’s Buddy who is the film’s fundamental creation, one so irascibly compelling as to impress all the Buddys in Huang’s career.
Where Huang is an L.A. unknown who dissects Hollywood ambition with the aid of three moderately luminous stars, David Salle is a New York art-world phenom who decorates his directorial debut, Search and Destroy, with numerous attention-getting cameos. But his parable has no cogent characters, and—even after its reported recut by executive producer Martin Scorsese—little narrative drive.
Adapted by Michael Almereyda from a play by Howard Korder, Destroy involves the search by Florida show-biz sleaze Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) for a movie project that will change his small-time life. Informed by a tax auditor that he owes the state $147,000, Martin loses his wife (Rosanna Arquette) but not his vision. He wants to film an inspirational novel by Dr. Luthor Waxling (Dennis Hopper), known for his late-night self-help infomercials, and heads to Dallas to meet the doctor. Brushed off by Waxling’s assistant (Ethan Hawke in one of the film’s more plausible performances), Martin cultivates Waxling’s secretary Marie (Ileana Douglas), who turns out to have a dream project of her own: Dead World, a sex/slasher script she’s written.
With Marie’s help, Martin meets Waxling, who dismisses him when he discovers the would-be producer has no money. So Martin and Marie travel to New York, where Kim (Christopher Walken) and Ron (John Turturro) help Martin set up a big coke deal to raise cash. The deal, of course, goes wrong, but not as wrong as Walken and Turturro’s grandiosely goofy performances. Some people end up dead, but this just encourages Martin and Marie to complete their project. As in Sharks, true movie moguls can’t be afraid to sign a deal in blood.
Filmed in and around New York with various Scorsese alumni (Dunne and Arquette were in After Hours, Douglas in Cape Fear) and Salle pals (notably Hopper), Search includes such demented set pieces as Walken singing “Red River Valley” in a Japanese restaurant and a rail-travel montage intercutting Dunne and Douglas with old black-and-white footage of WWII-vintage trains. Salle seems to have concerned himself principally with bold color compositions, leaving the performers to decide for themselves what sort of film they were making. Though that was a disastrous approach, it seems oddly realistic: Even now that it’s finished, it’s unclear what Search is supposed to be.