Staring at me as I knock out the last hundred or so Criterion titles is Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film, and arguably the most notorious film in the Criterion Collection. The movie features moments so grotesque that viewers have been known to vomit during screenings. I haven't watched it yet. I'm thinking about watching it. I might not watch it.
Pasolini's career before Salo has been overwhelmed by that film, but he did make a number of other well-regarded movies, including this one, a sort of anti-Neo-Realist Neo-Realist film. Mamma Roma tells the story of a former prostitute freed by her pimp's marriage to reconnect with her son, make a nice life for them, and work towards giving him the chances she never had. Although Mamma Roma is by no means Salo, I think it's pretty obvious that this doesn't end well.
For me - despite some fascinating cinematography and interesting direction, mostly with relation to blocking and editing choices - the beginning and end of Mamma Roma is Anna Magnani's performance. Magnani is probably most famous for being the pregnant woman gunned down in the street in Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (in fact, Pasolini dedicated this film to Rossellini), though she had a rich and lengthy career, including an Oscar win for her role in The Rose Tattoo. She's not especially beautiful, but she has a classically Italian appearance and her presence is extremely powerful, almost entrancing. Here, she manages to balance the grit and grace of her character. For all her shortcomings, you want the best for her, which means wanting the best for her shitty son who is clearly destined to amount to little. It's a nearly iconic performance.
Beyond Magnani, Mamma Roma seems hesitant to commit to its own argument. The film's dark slant is barreling towards a rejection of the neo-realist "the people are the answer" solution, but its empathy (and, I suspect, Pasolini's own internal struggle with this answer) prevents it from fully hitting the tipping point. Magnani remains the lasting element.