The story of Mamma Roma begins in the rural landscape of Guidonia, far from the crude urbanity that has since become the city of Rome. The eponymous ‘Mamma Roma’ is known simply by this title throughout the film. We meet her for the first time in this setting, bursting in (invited we tentatively presume) on the wedding of her former pimp. She ushers in three pigs whom she calls the ‘Fratelli d’Italia’. The viewer will also discern that the scene depicted is rather in the vein of Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
In the first five minutes or so, we have Mr Pasolini offering us a feast of religious and political symbolism…as it pertains to dear Mamma Roma though, well, we’re still not quite sure. Yet after this parade of themes that the film will go on to explore, Pasolini leaves us with his most important message of all: the beautiful purity of a mother’s love. Mamma Roma holds her little boy in her arms with the shot beginning at normal speed. They laugh and play as she swings him around high in the air; suddenly, we start to slow into deep slow motion. We seem to feel Mamma Roma’s unspoken want to remain in this simple time and place, to stop and to stay as happy as she was on that day. The screen however, does not give us that satisfying freeze-frame which we crave, but merely fades to a proleptic black.
Mamma Roma tells the story of the titular lady (if one can quite call her that) known to us simply as ‘Mamma Roma’. The affectionate sobriquet conferred immediately conjures up a brazen, boisterous woman, and the performance of Anna Magnani certainly doesn’t disappoint. Concealed beneath this tough and bubbly exterior though is a quiet melancholy, of which we see only glimpses of from time to time. She tells her son, fleetingly, that she has seen the ugly world, and in that moment we see the pain in her eyes as she relives her painful memories. So is the fascinating portrait of Mamma Roma, at once both bold and breakable, coarse and tender.
The heart of Mamma Roma though, is actually her son, Ettore. After many years of walking the streets, she can finally go and reclaim her son, look after him and finally provide for him a decent life. She brings him to Rome — to the shabby house where she has been living — vowing that she will be able to take him somewhere better. She promises that they’ll certainly have fun later. As Mamma Roma says this, mother and son look out onto a graveyard. The image is not exactly ominous, but rather another tragic prefiguration of what lies ahead.
Two of the loveliest sequences of Mamma Roma, which actually mirror each other, are the famous ‘street walking scenes’. In each, Mamma Roma tells the story of her life with an unabashed frankness to whoever passes her as she goes on her way. She walks towards the camera as it moves back, and as she talks, various people greet her for a few moments, only to leave and be succeeded by a new group. The first time round, as Mamma Roma is leaving her old life as a prostitute to work as a respectable fruit vendor, she is so full of joy that we almost don’t notice her woeful tale. In the first instance, the gorgeous lights signify Mamma Roma elation and the bright future that awaits her.
In the second instance though, the almost identical shot takes on a very different meaning. Instead of being bathed in a comforting darkness, Mamma Roma seems to be utterly engulfed in it. The lights become stars, and the shadowy night the whole universe. Mamma Roma in this scene is helpless and alone, condemned to a wretched and undeserved fate. She looks up into the vast emptiness and asks:
Explain to me why I’m a nobody, and you’re the king of kings.
The final scenes of Mamma Roma are, like many a Pasolini film, the most harrowing of all. Ettore, when he learns of his mother’s former profession, is devastated and begins a life as a thief. Eventually, he is sent to prison. The last image we have of Ettore is as he lies strapped to a wooden bed, dying of a raging fever. Near the start of the film, it is made apparent that Ettore does not adore his mother quite as she does him, but that he loves her nonetheless. As he himself says, he knows that he loves her, for he would cry if she died.
At the end of the film, as he himself lies dying, it is his mother that Ettore calls for plaintively. The perspective of this shot is similar to Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, harking back to the opening scene of the wedding. Combined with a dramatic chiaroscuro effect, we get a scene that is both heartbreakingly beautiful and almost of a religious nature.
When Mamma Roma hears of Ettore’s death, we see her running back to her apartment, attempting to jump out of the window. The grieving woman is held back however, and as tears stream down her face, she looks out at the dome of a church. Undoubtedly, there is once more that sense of isolation and anger at God. However, I also believe there is also a subtly uplifting message to be had: both Ettore and Mamma Roma are linked to religion in their misery, and consequently we see a connection between the two characters that transcends the suffering that they must endure. Once again, the sanity of the love between a mother and her child is affirmed.