Mamma Roma begins by showcasing the emotive bombast of its star Anna Magnani, who is seen hooting, hollering, and cackling with unbridled glee in the center of the film’s opening wedding scene. Magnani, one of the most forceful presences behind the neorealism movement, plays the titular Mamma Roma like her life depends on it. Her performance dominates this dark, sophomore effort by controversial director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who creates a film that feels communicative – both in a aesthetic and thematic sense – about a country and its culture.
The parameters of Mamma Roma’s storyline are relatively simple. Magnani is Roma, a middle-aged, former prostitute with a fierce, iron-like will. After quitting her ignominious biz, Mamma Roma sets out on a quest to reclaim her son Ettore (a baby faced Ettore Garofolo), before moving to Rome and opening up a vegetable stand.
On a deeper level Mamma Roma’s aspirations revolve around providing her son with the foundation for a better life. This relationship between mother and child forms the dramatic crux of Pasolini’s film, and is one defined by a complex dynamic which oscillates between affection and love to frustration and acrimony.
Magnani’s Roma is no suffering, Madonna-like figure. Throughout the film she is often intense with her treatment of Ettore, openly criticizing him and even threatening to paste him one if he refuses to clean up his loutish actions. Her bruising treatment of the callow youth makes sense though, as Rome is shown to be fraught with a number of temptations.
The role of Mamma Roma is complex and must have surely been exhausting to play, but Magnani rises to the challenge. She is a wild, enlivened presence in the film, with her character occasionally coming off as so forceful and assertive that she becomes unlikable. The character’s generally big personality is balanced well by smaller moments that Magnani creates with her eyes. What is conveyed is that while Roma is loud and irascible, there is always love, concern and fear underneath her behavior.
Playing opposite of her, Ettore Garofolo offers an entirely different acting style. His Ettore is a young man who appears almost half-dead, not to mention doomed from the start. Bitter and nearly misanthropic in character, Ettore spends his days loafing off with a number of other interchangeable street hooligans, committing petty theft and chasing a young woman (Silvana Corsini) who lives in the same bleak neighborhood. Roma, sensing that her son is heading down the wrong path, pulls out all the stops to help elevate her and Ettore economically. And yet, what she quickly finds is that her aspirations for bourgeois respectability are far more difficult than she originally imagined. Throughout the film she continually has to fall back upon her old lifestyle in order to achieve her ends.
Mamma Roma conveys its thematic framework of economic marginalization and social evolution in a number of different ways. Pasolini largely centers the action of the story in a singular neighborhood, which borders an undeveloped swath of land filled with rocky hills and crumbling ruins. Set during the time period in Italy known as the Italian economic miracle, Mamma Roma offers a searing critique for this type of environment, especially with how the boxy, public housing that the characters exist in is juxtaposed with the ancient structures in the surrounding countryside.
This clashing of pre and post-war culture, embodied in the film’s landscape, is also reflected in the lives of the different characters. Roma is prompted repeatedly to reenter the subculture that she existed in (for over three decades) for the sake of her son. Her former pimp Carmine (played with emotional volitility by Franco Citti) also reappears, distraught and vindictive, as he has also found himself incapable of acclimating to a rapidly changing nation. Through his reappearance, additional pressure is placed on Roma to get back into the game. Carmine threatens to reveal to her son the true nature of her former life unless she submits to his demands.
When Magnani’s titular character heads back out onto the streets, Pasolini effectively creates a swirling, nearly surreal landscape of long camera takes and dramatic lighting. What is unique about these moments is the dialectical relationship they have with the scene’s profiling Mamma Roma’s life in Rome. When streetwalking, Roma becomes the center of the universe. Her power seems assured, with scores of men seen trailing after her heels. Pasolini’s camera and Magnani’s movements give these scenes a circular feeling of movement, which paired with the overwhelming darkness of the environment suggest a great deal about how the character has been trapped by circumstance.
One line critical to understanding Pasolini’s critique of Italian society comes when Mamma Roma asks the neighborhood’s priest for help in finding gainful employment for her son. The priest initially asks Roma if Ettore has any skills or serious education, two qualities fundamentally important to success in Italy’s post-war economy. After Roma glumly says that he doesn’t, the priest remarks (quite bluntly) that one “can’t make something out of nothing.” This applies to Ettore’s qualifications, but also to how the relationship between Ettore and Roma is far from the ideal that Magnani’s character envisions. And, to a larger extent, the line communicates intuitively how Italian culture has been divided socially (and especially economically) into winners and losers, perhaps in a more dramatic fashion than ever before.
The tragic conclusion of the film, while heavy-handed, and filled with bizarre, confounding imagery, reenforces this, suggesting that even two decades after the fall of fascism scars continue to run deep. Pasolini unflinchingly captures this, compassionately examining his characters’ inability to transcend their times and make something meaningful of their lives.