'The Passion of Anna Magnani': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A tantalizing taste of Italy’s greatest actress.

The life of Anna Magnani is recounted through her films and stage work by documaker Enrico Cerasuolo.

Towards the end of Enrico Cerasuolo’s The Passion of Anna Magnani, Marcello Mastroianni — who co-starred with Magnani in the film 1870 — calls her “the greatest actress we ever had,” a judgment most viewers will agree with. Though it certainly whets the appetite, this one-hour recap of her stage and film career is too brief to get at the heart of Italy’s great screen legend, who embodied the bare-faced, post-war honesty of neo-realism and became a symbol of the city of Rome itself. (Tennessee Williams called her “the spirit of Italy.")

Professionally made, but lacking the passion of its subject and a personal point of view from which to approach her, the doc should anyway hit the spot for fest and TV usage. It is a fine catalog of her must-see films and includes a well-chosen selection of historical interviews. The opinions of Marlon Brando, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren and Ingrid Bergman are unwrapped like gifts, each one offering a different perspective on Magnani’s complex personality. According to her son Luca, she was an unusual mixture of masculine and feminine, and the director stresses her nonconformity, strength and courage.

It is the film’s unoriginal thesis that the actress’ life was conditioned by a lack of love as a child. She never met her father and her mother abandoned her to the care of her grandmother; so she sought the affection and adulation of the public. The interviewees are more interesting in painting her willful, difficult character.

Though the dialogue is mostly in Italian, the first scene is a little disorienting in showing Magnani (1908-1973) speaking fluent French to a journalist, to whom she admits she’s had to pay for the luxury of being a free woman. Her sense of personal freedom is much at odds with the times, particularly the Fascist years when Mussolini urged women to be obedient and produce nine-children families. During the Nazi occupation of Rome at the end of the war, she incurred threats from the Germans for crying the word “freedom” onstage at the end of a line.

Before Magnani met director Roberto Rossellini and shot to fame with her heroic role in Rome, Open City, she acted in cabaret and films, including Vittorio De Sica’s comedy Teresa Venerdi. We find her singing melodiously in her nasal voice dressed in the high society clothes of the day. Her uniqueness was not immediately recognized by everyone, however. Her husband, the director Goffredo Alessandrini, gave her a small role in his 1936 Cavalry without so much as a close-up. They split up because of his unfaithfulness.  

Magnani was performing onstage when Rossellini offered her the part of Pina, the anti-fascist woman from a poor neighborhood in Rome, Open City. The heart-breaking scene of her death at the hands of German soldiers is justifiably the most iconic in her career, the moment that consecrated neo-realist cinema. Amid the destruction of war, her son Luca was born; his father, actor Massimo Serato, didn’t want to get married and Anna courageously decided to raise him herself. Like much in this fast-moving and tightly packed doc, there is no room to stop and really reflect on this key mother-son relationship, despite the fact that an older, meditative Luca makes himself very much available.

Her famous affair with Rossellini is only touched upon. It ended when he met Ingrid Bergman, and Cerasuolo illustrates Magnani’s unhappiness with excerpts from The Human Voice, the poignant monologue of a discarded woman on the phone with her former lover, which she filmed for Rossellini. Her reaction to losing the lead role in his Stromboli to Bergman was to simultaneously shoot Vulcano on a neighboring island, but this painful period is hurried through.

The second half pf the doc sees Magnani triumph in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima about a stage mother, and his insight into her talent is revealing: “She wasn’t like other actresses. She was an inventive talent, an inexhaustible source of ideas, and her directors had to accept some of them.” Jean Renoir, who directed her in The Golden Coach in 1953, seemed instead to work around her moods. Williams was a great admirer and wrote The Rose Tattoo for her (for which she won an Oscar). She worked with Brando in The Fugitive Kind and Anthony Quinn in The Secret of Santa Vittoria, but her Hollywood films weren’t her best work and she knew it.

The film races on to conclude with excerpts from Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, another of the actress’ memorable performances, and her brief but luminous cameo in Fellini’s Roma as herself. One leaves this well-crafted bio wanting to delve deeper into a truly fascinating personality who left an indelible mark on Italian cinema.

Production companies: Les Film du Poisson, Zenit Arti Audiovisive, Arte France in association with Rai Com, Istituto Luce, Cinecitta
Director-screenwriter: Enrico Cerasuolo
Producers: Massimo Arvat, Estelle Fialon
Director of photography: Marco Pasquini
Editor: Marco Duretti
Music: Cristiano Lo Mele
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

World sales: Rai Com

60 minutes