The shocking quality of the title Mamma Roma doesn’t arise from the ways in which Anna Magnani’s character depicts a Roman class not often shown in touristic or classical images of the city. It comes from the fact that, despite the great compensatory Breast of St Peter’s Basilica, the city has a profoundly anti-maternal mythos. Romulus and Remus were orphaned, suckled by a wolf and raised by a shepherd and his wife. Rome isn’t a walled city that could be thought of as protectively holding its residents within a barrier and protecting them from malevolent external forces. Modern Rome has continuously pushed its sub-proletarian periphery outwards while metastatically developing a bourgeois center in order to sell itself.
Mamma Roma presents only two mothers, both wasted in the expanding circle of shit borgates. The eponymous character’s pimp forces her back into the life of a commodity which she cannot tolerate. The only possibility for the redemption she craves lies with her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo.) She can find no means of escape for him, so she takes advantage of her connections among prostitutes and pimps to blackmail a restaurant owner into giving Ettore a job as a waiter. Seeing him at work serving tourists in the Trastevere, Mamma Roma can only break into tears. The line of flight she opened for him was just another version of her own whoring. The shot of central Rome looking like a cold white wall blocking entry to its most colonized inhabitants, seemingly from a window of the apartment she shares with her son, figures her impasse.
The boys of the ghetto constantly violate the stranded body of the other mother in the film, Bruna (Silvana Corsini.) Near the beginning of the movie they share her with Ettore and turn aggressive when he tries to keep her for himself by treating her slightly less abusively. Mamma Roma has the fortitude to navigate the city, and even manages to use some of the blackmail money to buy Ettore a motorbike so that he can too. Bruna does not leave the periphery and although, to a certain extent, she resists being gang-raped, she ultimately gives in for fear of intensifying the boys’ violence.
She lives for her baby, who ultimately gets sick enough that she worries he may die. Her body cannot form a limit to protect herself or her child. In one of the film’s few images of tenderness she sits like a Madonna with the baby on her lap and feeds him bites of an apple from her mouth. That shot functions as the inverse of the one of the cold white center. It also forms a set with various shots of characters singing because these are the only shots in Momma Roma or Accattone where the mouth connects people. The other mouths, rendered hysterical by the force of capital on human bodies, display their emptiness like black holes, eat to overflowing, spit, or in the most violent form of Pasolinian separation, speak. Mamma Roma’s last dream, of being kicked out of the circle of shit because one stinks too badly, confirms this alimentary logic.
would make a good double feature with A Woman Under The Influence.