Italy, 1962: vivacious Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) takes a first step toward escaping her prostitute past and making good on the country's post-war recovery by reclaiming teenage son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) and moving to Rome's outskirts, where dreams of a better life, and a respectable job as a fruit and vegetable vendor, await.
But such dreams are in vain in Pier Paolo Pasolini's sophomore film, an agonizing, street-tough passion play. Contemporaries Fellini and Antonioni dropped the class-bound trappings of Neorealism to focus on the Economic Miracle's decadent jet set; Pasolini stuck with the whores, pimps, thieves, and ne'er-do-wells still literally living in the shadows and ruins of Rossellini's Rome: Open City. Hardly sentimental or coddling in its view of the proletariat, Mamma Roma's tragedy is as much psychological as social. Forced by her former pimp into recidivist nightwalking (captured in unbroken tracking shots on eerily blackened, streetlamp-pocked streets where johns swing in and out of orbit), Mamma Roma resiliently hustles for Ettore's future even as knowledge of her activities drives him to a disastrous life of crime.
Rife with Catholic symbolism—Ettore undergoes a fevered prison ordeal evoking the crucifixion, while a window view of the Vatican consistently reappears to mock hope—Mamma Roma plants the seeds of the Freudian conflict that would weave its way through the first half of Pasolini's short but intense career: next up was The Gospel According to St. Matthew (with Madre Pasolini as the Virgin Mary) and then three years later Oedipus Rex itself. Ironically, both Pasolini and his star disliked the most powerful embodiment of maternal suffering in any of his work (ever the Marxist, he thought Magnani didn't fit "a woman of the people with petite bourgeois aspirations"): the irrepressible hearty laugh with which she initially expresses joie de vivre, transformed by film's end into a harrowing cry.
Opens January 21