Before "Retrospective: Anna Magnani" gets started on January 12, learn more about one of the greatest Italian actresses in cinema history from Angela Dancey. The former Columbusite earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry) and Ph.D. (Film Studies) from the Department of English at The Ohio State University. She teaches composition, film studies, and literature at The University of Illinois at Chicago.
Anna Magnani (1908-1973), known in Italy as “La Lupa” (The She-Wolf), may be less familiar to American audiences than her fellow Italian film actors Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, or Silvana Mangano. While the latter three women, especially Loren, are celebrated for their conventional beauty, sex appeal, and glamour (unsurprisingly, their careers began with beauty contest titles and modeling gigs), Magnani is rarely described as “beautiful” and more often as “earthy,” “fiery,” and “volcanic.” Her striking and expressive physicality—wild black hair, shadowed eyes, and elegant but restless hands often clutching at each other or her clothing—draws us deeply into her character’s inner life, revealing the aching vulnerability beneath the tough exterior. Her acting choices defy easy categorization, incorporating elements of naturalism, improvisation, and melodrama in order to flesh out the working-class mothers, prostitutes, and actors she most often portrayed. And while I avoid using the cliché “infectious laugh,” there is no other way to describe Magnani’s explosive vocal expression of joy, inversely proportional to her characters’ sadness, grief, and longing. A series like “Retrospective: Anna Magnani” offers a pleasurable immersion in her work, and reflects the range and depth of her sensual and emotional appeal.
Though she had already been working in film for more than a decade, it was Magnani’s role as Pina in Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City) that brought her international attention, and established her association with the archetype of the long-suffering mother. The tragic finale would be devastating in the hands of any actor, but Magnani’s soulful performance intensifies our empathy, making this scene arguably the most iconic of the Italian Neorealist movement. However, it is Magnani’s performance as another “Roman mother” in another Neorealist film that is my personal favorite: Maddelena in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, from 1951.
Determined to make her sweet but unremarkable young daughter into a movie star, Maddelena sacrifices, charms, and manipulates in order to achieve her goal and transcend the limitations of her working-class life. While the film overflows with maternal energy—the audition scenes with crowds of hopeful stage mothers and their daughters shot on location at Cinecittà studios are especially memorable—it isn’t a simple maternal melodrama. Magnani gives Maddelena a frantic and single-minded passion for her daughter’s success, but her motivations are complex—is she a heroic mother? A selfish dreamer? Maddelena’s final sacrifice for her daughter is the most painful of all, and Magnani brings so much love, sadness, and weary self-realization to this moment that it’s both heartbreaking and uplifting.
In addition to working with the great Italian directors of her time, Magnani had a brief but memorable stint in Hollywood. American playwright Tennessee Williams considered her a muse, and wrote two screenplays for her: The Rose Tattoo (1955), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, and The Fugitive Kind (1959), in which she co-starred with the equally fiery Marlon Brando. Returning to Italy in the early 1960s, Magnani had a difficult time finding work, and she made only a few films in the years before her death. In her final film appearance, she plays herself in Fellini’s Roma (1972); a year later, her funeral drew crowds of thousands to the same city.
British actor Helen Mirren, who once named Magnani as her “true great inspiration,” said, “There’s a sense with Magnani that she’d literally just thought of the thing she was doing. Talk about being in the moment. There’s no one like that, no one has been, no one before or no one since.”
(Pictured, Anna Magnani in Bellissima, courtesy of Movietime)