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.