• Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma

A few days after I watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin for work, I revisited Mamma Roma (1962) at the Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective currently underway at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I found the films complemented each other rather nicely—both hinge on the perverse spectacle of a world-famous actress playing off a cast of everyday people. Mamma Roma stars Anna Magnani as a former prostitute from Italy’s rural poor; Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a space alien undercover in Scotland. Which is more implausible? Is it Pasolini’s film, with its realistic premise, or is it Glazer’s, which acknowledges the fundamental otherness of celebrities vis-a-vis the rest of us?

Carole Cadwalladr writes in her recent Guardian profile of Johansson: “Celebrities may not be an actual master race—yet—but there is something weirdly jarring about seeing someone familiar from a thousand red-carpet photographs, walking down an ordinary high street full of the ordinary faces of ordinary lives.” This line also could be used to describe the celebrated extended takes of Mamma Roma, in which Magnani walks the nighttime streets of Rome, reminiscing for passersby as though making the city the backdrop for a one-woman show.

Pasolini regretted casting Magnani. “If I’d gotten her to do a real petit bourgeois I would probably have got a good performance out of her,” he admitted in a 1969 interview (reprinted in the Criterion Collection’s DVD release of Mamma Roma), continuing:

As I choose actors for what they are and not for what they pretend to be, I made a mistake about what the character really was, and although Anna Magnani made a moving effort to do what I asked of her, the character simply did not emerge. I wanted to bring out the ambiguity of subproletarian life with a petit bourgeois superstructure. This didn’t come out, because Anna Magnani is a woman who was born and has lived as a petit bourgeois and then as an actress and so hasn’t got those characteristics.

This statement reveals much about Pasolini’s approach to filmmaking, conveying the influence of classical painting on his choice of actors and the Marxist politics that informed his view of society as a whole. Yet it seriously undervalues Mamma Roma, which succeeds as both a star vehicle for Magnani and as a portrait of “subproletarian life with a petit bourgeois superstructure.” Pasolini’s social vision—developed across an extraordinary career that spanned poetry, novels, journalism, and essays as well as films—ran so deep that not even Magnani’s screen presence could jostle it. And if the lead performance isn’t authentically proletarian, its boisterousness still enhances the film’s operatic quality, strengthening its roots to artistic tradition. Yes, Pasolini chose actors for what they were, but what was Magnani if not a born performer?

Pasolini viewed his relationship to his star as something of a creative stalemate. The director-star dynamic of Under the Skin suggests a stalemate between filmmakers and audience. In his Guardian review of Skin (one of the best I’ve read on the film), Leo Robson describes Johansson’s performance as “functioning as a screen for our projections. . . . Just as Sergio Leone said that he looked through Clint Eastwood’s face and saw a block of marble, so Glazer gets something boulder-like—impassive, abstracted—from Johansson.” Robson goes on to suggest that the movie “seeks to undermine our conventional strategies of creating meaning,” and one way it does this is by making Johansson’s movie-star allure seem unworldly.

It might be worthwhile to compare Under the Skin with one of the most divisive films to premiere in Chicago so far this year, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915. That film features Juliette Binoche, playing the schizophrenic sister of poet Paul Claudel, acting alongside women of profoundly limited intelligence. In the context of Dumont’s ascetic imagery and the unself-consciousness of her costars, Binoche’s presence seems practically obscene. The film illustrates how unjust was the mental health care system in earlier generations, when a schizophrenic woman of normal intelligence would be institutionalized with the developmentally disabled as though they all suffered from the same condition. Yet Dumont doesn’t want us to sympathize with Camille Claudel so much as recoil from the system that destroyed her. Claudel is as perverse a film as Skin, toying with the same viewer expectations and obsessed by what its star is not.