Forget Black Swan's smothering mother and the helmet-haired harridan of The Fighter; when it comes to maternal messiness currently at a theater near you, these women can't hold an altar candle to Anna Magnani's Mamma Roma, the embodiment of an Italian male's Madonna-whore complex shrink-wrapped in a tight skirt. First seen herding pigs into a wedding and singing bawdy songs about the bride, the title character of Pier Paolo Pasolini's second film bum-rushes the show like a one-woman tsunami of prole vulgarity. But this former streetwalker is about to turn over a new leaf: She's giving up the oldest profession to bring her teen son (Garofolo) to live with her in Rome. Things seem rosy, until she decides to meddle in his romance with the town tramp and a former associate (Citti) threatens to blab about her past. You can guess how this will end.
Virtually unseen in the U.S. until Martin Scorsese played patron saint in the mid-'90s, Mamma Roma is more of a tribute to Magnani than to her director; her dominating earthy demeanor, not to mention that braying laugh, were never used to better effect. Pasolini himself reportedly thought she overpowered the movie (he's not wrong), and this was the filmmaker's last foray into pure neorealism, before diving headfirst into the mystic and the Marxist. Superior works were on the horizon: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Teorema, Sal. Still, this is a key transitional work for the cinematic subversive, a seriously damning portrait of maternal martyrdom and, in a killer final shot, upward mobility.