An ex-prostitute, Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani), tries to start a new life selling vegetables with her 16-year-old son Ettore. When Ettore later finds out that she was a prostitute, he succumbs to his dark side and stops doing his duties. He later carries a petty theft of a radio in a hospital and goes to prison. Meanwhile, Mamma Roma is struggling to raise her son the best way possible and build a new life for both.Anna Magnani ... Mamma Roma
Ettore Garofolo ... Ettore
Franco Citti ... Carmine
Silvana Corsini ... Bruna
Luisa Loiano ... Biancofiore
Paolo Volponi ... Priest
Luciano Gonini ... Zacaria
The lingering shots of Ettore, strapped to a prison bed in his underwear are seductive and haunting, as are shots of Mamma Roma walking at night, joined by different men in conversation, one after another in one continuous shot.
Pier Paolo Pasolini said that he wasn't able to rebirth Anna Magnani as she was in Roma, città aperta because, as an actor, she chose to maintain her independence from his artistic visions. "If I had to shoot the film over, I would have still chosen her", said Pasolini later.
Mamma Roma was dedicated to the director of Roma, città aperta (1945), Roberto Rossellini. Anna Magnani plays a pregnant woman who is killed in the middle of Rossellini's film. Rossellini represents "good Italians" through the deaths of a priest, Don Pietro, who helps a communist group and a mother who tries to help her communist husband. People who killed these "good Italians" are Nazis. On the other hand, Pasolini comments on how the country changed from 1945 to 1962 in Mamma Roma. First of all, characters in the film are whores, pimps, and thieves. None of them are people who work for people. Secondly, in the beginning of the film, Mamma Roma brings three piglets to the wedding of her old pimp, Carmine. Carmine calls them "Brothers of Italy". Then, Mamma Roma calls one of them a slut. Contrasting with Rossellini's patriotic film, Pasolini brings irony into his film. Ettore dies in an Italian prison even though he does not die from extreme physical torture. Pasolini shows that the corruption of society is not because of outside forces like Rome under Nazi occupation. The problems are actually created within the society or the people in it.
There is a shot of the landscape of Rome in the end of Mamma Roma. The dome of a church (Basilica di San Giovanni Bosco) sticks out from the rest of the tops of buildings. The scene shares a similarity with the aforementioned Rossellini's film again. In Rossellini's film, the dome of St. Peter's appears as the background when boys are walking on the street dragging their sadness. They seem like they are walking toward St. Peter's or "the house of God". On the other hand, in Pasolini's film, when Mamma Roma learns of Ettore's death, she goes back to her apartment and tries to jump out of the window. She sees the dome of a church and stares at the dome. The image of her and the dome switches back and forth. Her stare gets more intense. The film ends.
What separates Pasolini from other neo-realist filmmakers is the use of actors and their acting. Most of Pasolini's cast didn't have any acting training. In his book A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice, Maurizio Viano points out that actors in other filmmaker's films are "beginners" and they start establishing acting careers afterwards. But in Pasolini's case, most of the actors "only acted with Pasolini". So, actors who have worked with Pasolini don't develop a career in acting because Pasolini's film is the first and the last film of their acting career. Author of Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy, Naomi Greene says the use of non-professional actors is the same as what other neo-realist filmmakers do, but the philosophy behind it is different. Neo-realist filmmakers believed that using nonprofessional actors "would add to the realism to their films, Pasolini turned to nonprofessionals because their acting did not seem 'real'". Nonprofessional acting obviously interrupts "narrative flow". For example, when Mamma Roma and Ettore dance a tango together, Ettore's rigid inexpert dance move causes his mother to fall on the floor. She laughs brightly. Ettore laughs shyly and looks at the camera. But Pasolini does not cut or reshoot the scene. He leaves it as it is.
Pasolini's obsession with Christian art can be seen in Mamma Roma. In the scene of Carmine's wedding, Pasolini recreates the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. There is a long flat table at which newlyweds are sitting and a white wall behind them. When Ettore dies in a prison hospital, Pasolini recreates Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Ettore is lying on the wooden bed. He is stripped down to an undershirt and underpants. His body is tied to the bed. The light coming from the ceiling emphasizes Ettore's pale skin. The camera shoots his body from Ettore's feet, similar to the Mantegna painting.
Pasolini often uses the word "sacred" to describe the images he creates or the images that he excludes from the frame. In the film, there are two long shots, and both of them are when Mamma Roma walks at night, working as a prostitute. The background is dark. Only lined street lights are dimly shining. The audience can't see what is going on in the background. Mamma Roma seems isolated from the world. Greene explains what this cinematography technique creates in Pasolini's film. "By fixing and isolating segments of what is visible, Pasolini creates the sense that what we see is merely one part of reality, and that the truly essential — and sacred — remains unseen." Just as people can't see God, Pasolini is attracted by something that is invisible to the audience's eye, and the invisible images carry something mysterious. In this scene of Mamma Roma, the invisible background makes the scene more mysterious and outstanding than other scenes in the film.
Pasolini uses physical language to show an emotional or psychological state of Ettore. Ettore walks abnormally as if he is "sleepwalking". Viano suggests that "Pasolini has Ettore 'sleepwalking' throughout the film because 'sleepwalking' is the best visual translation of a state of nonparticipation in normal, waking life". Ettore's physical state fits with his psychological state. He starts having a fever in the end of the film. He gets excluded from his friends and becomes lonely. His "abnormal body temperature" shows abnormality or difference between him and other people and his strong loneliness and wanting to belong and to have somebody to trust.
As soon as the film was released, critics and audiences claimed the film as immoral due to swearing. The issue was brought to court, but the case was turned down as unfounded.
At the film's premiere in the Quattro Fontane Cinema in Rome on 22 September 1962, Pasolini was attacked by fascists who protested against the film.
The film is considered by some film critics as a visual evidence on the hardships of the people who struggled to live after the Italian Fascist era.