While the Italian Contemporary Film Festival runs through Ontario and Quebec, we thought we’d feature one of Italian cinema’s most glorious hidden gems, Anna Magnani in one of her most impressive roles in 1962’s Mamma Roma.
Who is she?
Known throughout simply as Mamma Roma, this titular character is unlike any you’ve ever seen in classic film and even less so in Hollywood films. She is a former prostitute who tries to go straight only to find that she is able to earn more money by selling her most coveted commodity: herself. Like most of the women we feature in this column, Mamma Roma is unashamed and unafraid, but she is a little more impressive for it because her career choice is one that has been controversial for centuries. Though sometimes she does find herself forced back into the “world’s oldest profession” by her former pimp, most of the film is spent with Mamma Roma attempting to go straight, not because of what society will say about her, but because of how society will treat her teenage son.
Everything Mamma Roma does has the intention of making a good life for her beloved son, to ensure that he has everything he needs so he doesn’t resort to a life of crime. She wants to be the clean cut mother so that he will fit in and even coaches him to make friends because she so badly wants him to feel like he belongs.
But despite all her efforts, she is Mamma Roma first and foremost and being Mamma Roma means being loud, abrasive and sexy, but not conventionally ladylike. Mamma Roma doesn’t giggle and hide her mouth when she laughs like other ladies would: she guffaws, showing off her gaping mouth and large teeth and she looks stunning. She doesn’t keep her hair well kemp and becomes famous for her tousled tresses. She is an entity who is trying so hard to fit in when she was born to stand out.
What makes her a badass?
Besides the fact that she’s a happy hooker, Mamma Roma is also and aging woman. Aging women seem to always get the bum end of the stick, but Mamma Roma refuses to let insults even scratch her. When johns tease her for her age and her unladylike manners, she laughs in their face with that mighty guffaw of hers and when she’s teased for her crudeness and strangeness, she calls more attention to it and basks in it. She is the perfect example of how to deal with bullies: laugh back at them. But more than that, she is a terribly inspiring icon of being utterly and totally secure with yourself.
The fact that she’s an aging woman who has never been a classic beauty with an abrasive personality never stops Mamma Roma from feeling good about herself. She believes herself to be a bombshell and we believe it because she doesn’t let us think otherwise. She is comfortable in her own skin, regardless if that skin comes off as unattractive to most or if it’s past the supposed age of appeal. She is truly unbreakable and all we can do is marvel at her unimaginable confidence and wonder how we can get in on that.
Why does she still matter today?
Sex-positive feminism is slowly starting to become more popular and one if its main tropes is the insistence that sex work is work. Mamma Roma is the forerunner for sex-positive feminism not only because she herself has been a sex worker, but because she sees — decades before we now see — that sex work is no different (and shouldn’t be any different) than any other job. Sex workers earn an honest living like anyone else and that just because what they do may be considered immoral by some, doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong.
More importantly, Mamma Roma shows us that sex work is not always a last resort for women. Not every person who decides to become a sex worker — be it a prostitute, a porn star or stream themselves having sex — does it as a last resort. There is a freedom in owning sexuality and returning its power to women which is born out of the essence of feminism. The power rests in the choice to embark on this career — to have the option to become whatever a person wants to be — and Mamma Roma is a perfect example of a woman who says “To hell with it” to arbitrary societal standards and does whatever works for her.