Mamma Roma has paid her dues and done her time. For nearly 30 years, she walked the sweaty streets of Rome, turning tricks and handing out favors. And with her pimp (Franco Citti) married and moved to the country, Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) can welcome her teenage son (Ettore Garofolo) back to the city, open a fruit stand, and spend her working hours on her feet instead of on her back.
Welcome to Mamma Roma, welcome to life on the margins, and welcome to the cinema of Italy’s most radical filmmaker: Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was a novelist, a poet, and a theorist before he picked up a camera and a provocateur who courted controversy even before that. His most famous film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, depicts a Jesus so plain, so ordinary, nothing impedes his divinity. His most infamous film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, shows a world so depraved, so sadistic, it may have cost Pasolini his life.
Mamma Roma stands somewhere in between. Living in a shabby flat overlooking a cemetery, Mamma exists on the margins of society in a country still struggling to recover from Mussolini and the carnage of World War II. Her son, Ettore, is worse off. He moves through life half-asleep and completely detached; nothing, it seems, can shake him from his slumber: Not first love, not a fling with a prostitute, and not even a beating from the local miscreants.
Despite Mamma’s toil and Ettore’s despair, Mamma Roma is a glorious and intoxicating film. This is largely thanks to Magnani, an actress so powerful and captivating she turns the simple act of boiling an egg into an operatic aria. Legend has it Pasolini wrote Mamma Roma specifically for Magnani after he saw and fell in love with Rome, Open City—the movie that put both Magnani and Italian neorealism on the map. His admiration for the actress is evident in her every glance, every laugh, every vulgar outburst.
Mamma Roma premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 and quickly courted controversy with the public and critics for being immoral. A cop charged the film with obscenity and took it to court— the hearing was dropped due to unfounded evidence. Weeks later, Pasolini was attacked by fascists protesting the film, and U.S. distributors stayed away. Even as Pasolini grew in acclaim and fame with subsequent films, Mamma Roma remained unseen in America, due also in part to the filmmaker’s murder in 1975 (at the hands of a hustler, or an extortionist, or the mafia, or fascists—the crime remains unsolved and the details murky). Then, in 1995, Martin Scorsese and Milestone Films partnered to give Mamma Roma the stateside distribution it sorely deserved.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Mamma Roma, let it be this: The past you’ll always have with you. That may not bode well for Mamma and Ettore, but it does for moviegoers, cineastes, and Italian neorealist devotees. Mamma Roma is back, and she never looked better. Streaming now on The Criterion Channel.