Apr 9, 2013

Remembering "La Magnani"

Anna Magnani and Joseph Burstyn (circa 1950). Mr. Burstyn was the distributor of Roberto Rossellini's "l'Amore," a  pair of shorts in which Ms. Magnani starred. 
(Photo Credit: "Anna Magnani," Fabbri Editori, 1998.)

The Italian Embassy in the United States has joined with several other departments of the Italian government, and a few trade organizations, to declare 2013 The Year of Italian Culture in the United States. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Italian actress Anna Magnani, one of the most unique talents ever to grace the silver screen. It would seem a perfect time to celebrate her legacy, especially since Ms. Magnani holds a very special place in the history of American cinema.

Ms. Magnani’s performance in il Miracolo (The Miracle, 1948), where she plays a woman who believes her baby represents a virgin birth, sparked demonstrations when it screened at New York’s Paris Theater in 1950. Cardinal Spellman called the Roberto Rossellini short “sacrilegious” and demanded the theater withdraw it. The Paris did just that, and distributor Joseph Burstyn sued. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States. It voted unanimously in his favor, effectively granting the cinematic medium protection under the First Amendment. Sadly, il Miracolo is not available in the United States, nor is its accompanying short, the much celebrated Una Voce Umana (The Human Voice, 1948), in which Ms. Magnani portrays a spurned lover in a spectacular solo performance. (The two shorts were released together as L'Amore.)

Ms. Magnani and director William Dieterle (circa 1949) during production on "Vulcano," just one of the actress's many Italian films not available in any format in the U.S. Francesco Patierno's excellent documentary, "The War of the Volcanoes," which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2012, covers Ms. Magnani's career during this period, shortly after her break-up with Roberto Rossellini. (Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center.) My review of Patierno's film and others at NYFF, begin on page 59 of Ambassador Magazine: http://www.niaf.org/publications/ambassador/issues/ambassador-magazine-vol-24-2.pdf

Only a fraction of Ms. Magnani’s Italian films are available to American audiences (including to those who do not need English subtitles) in any format, despite her iconic status in Italian Neo-Realist cinema. Below is the complete text of my Spring 2013 "On Film" column from Ambassador Magazine, which is a brief consideration of the remarkable woman Italians call “La Magnani” in recognition of her singularity.

“La Magnani” (Ambassador Magazine, Spring 2013)

In her final film appearance, Anna Magnani is seen first as a shadow entering the frame. She is walking toward her home, the Palazzo Altieri in Rome, the camera tracking her from behind. It is evening, and she is alone in the chiaroscuro of a darkly lit street. Federico Fellini’s narration is lauding her as a symbol of Rome, a “she-wolf and vestal virgin, aristocrat and beggar.” When the camera reaches her, Magnani enters a door. She turns and faces the camera, which is in now in close-up. She inveigles: “What am I?” Fellini ignores the provocation, and bids the actress to allow him to question her. Magnani refuses. “I don’t trust you,” she says. Then, she closes the door, wresting control of the movie and her legacy. 

The scene is from Fellini’s Roma (1972), an overbaked valentine to Rome, the director’s adopted city and Magnani’s birthplace. The actress died a year after its release, in that ancient metropolis she had come to define for film audiences all over the world nearly three decades earlier. As Pina in Roberto Rossellini’s Roma: Cittá Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), filmed on location days after the Allies arrived, Magnani portrayed a working-class mother who embodied Italy’s wartime strife. She dies in the movie, in one of the most celebrated scenes in cinema history. Despite having acted in forty-nine films, Magnani is best-remembered for Rossellini’s movie, which remains the cornerstone of Italian Neo-Realism. It is one of a handful of her films widely available to English-speaking audiences in 2013, the 40th anniversary of her death.

By the time production began on Roma, Magnani was 64, and had already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She sensed her demise, and Fellini signaled it through her adumbrated entrance from beyond the frame. Magnani had recently completed a quartet of television movies which celebrated her signature film characters. La Sciantosa (1971), for instance, recalled her roles as a cabaret performer and chanteuse, the most famous of which was Camilla, the star of a commedia del’arte troupe in Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952). Magnani’s tour de force performance in that movie also provided a glimpse of her musical talent. She was proficient on the piano, and had a wonderful singing voice. While the film was shot in English, Magnani had been prepared to speak her lines in French, her second language since girlhood.

Magnani has one screenwriting credit, although evidence suggests she was an uncredited writer on many of her films. Whether or not she penned her enigmatic exit lines in Roma, Magnani’s articulated mistrust of Fellini charts their divergent artistic paths, and an era of Italian film history. Like many Italian filmmakers whose careers were on the rise in the 1950s, Fellini’s work represented a departure from Neo-Realism, the movement inspired by the struggles of real people. One early example is his screenplay for Rossellini’s short, il Miracolo (1948). It re-imagines Christ’s birth, with Magnani as the Virgin Mother. (Fellini’s character seduces her.) Another example is Luigi Zampa’s Angelina (1947), Magnani’s last box office success in Italy (and her screenwriting credit). Her eponymous character was based on a real working-class hero, yet Zampa’s film is actually a hybrid of Italian screen comedy and Neo-Realism. A delightfully entertaining movie, it also marks a turning point; Italians wanted to forget the war, and Neo-Realism harkened back to it.

Magnani, forged in cabaret and theater, adjusted to the changes on the horizon, but continued to seek out roles in Italy with directors committed to Neo-Realism and the naturalistic acting that was her métier. She appeared in several Italian comedies between 1945 and 1951, as well as the noteworthy drama Assunta Spina (1948). il Miracolo was paired with another of Rossellini’s shorts, The Human Voice, and released in 1948 under the title l’Amore. In “Voice,” Magnani delivers a riveting performance as a spurned lover. She also acted in two Neo-Realist movies, one in which she was cast as a hard-bitten war profiteer, Alberto Lattuada’s il Bandito (1946).

After the disastrous Vulcano (1950), and her break-up with Rossellini, Magnani played a stage mom in Luchino Visconti’s Bellessima (1952). It is among her most memorable roles, yet by the time of its release, Magnani was being eclipsed at home by films that favored busty, conventional beauty, and the sort of dramatic acting that was the antithesis of her art. Fellini rode that wave successfully. Magnani, who had already worked with the great Italian directors of her time, went on to conquer Hollywood, returning to Italian films on and off throughout the 1960s.

Magnani’s singularity defies comparison to any other screen actress of the sound era, especially in her portrayal of characters that possess tragic dimensions. In her role as an abused wife in The Fugitive Kind (1959), Magnani transcends Tennessee Williams’ sprawling script, transforming a character he and director Sidney Lumet imagined as a victim, into one that is a profound expression of life-affirming femininity. Bette Davis, who called Magnani the best actress she had ever seen, also likened her to a Dutch master; she said Magnani’s technique “matches Vermeer’s for clarity and delicacy.” Marcello Mastroianni, who appeared opposite her in 1870 (1972), said of Magnani’s performance: “That was the only time I have ever had goose-flesh.” He added that he was “utterly taken in by her as a woman.”

Magnani called up so much of herself in every role, that she often insisted on dialogue and even changes to story in order to achieve the authenticity she craved. In his autobiography “Starstruck,” producer Hal Wallis recalls Magnani’s request for a delay in filming so that she could rewrite her role in Wild is the Wind (1957). Wallis said no, explaining that key scenes had to be shot during lambing season. Magnani subsequently made significant changes to her character, but she was unhappy with the script. “I honestly think she felt nature could wait for Anna Magnani,” Wallis writes. In the end, the producer expresses regret at never having worked with Magnani again. The Rose Tattoo (1955), also produced by Wallis, was Magnani’s Oscar-winning performance, but “Wild” is her best in an American film.

Magnani’s art is less about portrayal than it is about being. Discussing her work with her biographer Matilde Hochkofler (Anna Magnani, 1984), she said: “I live what I do, or I believe I’m living it, which is the same thing.” Magnani possessed an unusual depth of emotion, and she had an uncanny instinct for how much of it to impart to the camera at any given moment. Directors existed to capture it. Even Fellini, who had never offered her a role until Roma. His hyperbolic description of Magnani as inseparable from the city ignores her craft, which prompts the line, “What am I?” When the influential director acts like a cub reporter, begging to ask una domanda, Magnani responds to his insincerity with her characteristic authenticity.

Maria Garcia