Anna Magnani: A Volcanic Talent

Description of image

Practically a symbol by now, Magnani’s cry,

under her disheveled, absolute shock of hair,

rings out in the desperate pan shots, while the meaning of tragedy crystallizes in her vivid, silent stare.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘La ricchezza’ (‘Riches’)(translated by Stephen Sartarelli) in Pasolini and Sartarelli (ed), The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2014) p.260


It’s one of the most powerful and affecting sequences in all cinema. We’re in Nazi-occupied Rome and an apartment block is being raided by the Germans. Women and children are rounded up in the courtyard looking on. Pina, the pregnant fiancée of resistance fighter Francesco comforts a crying woman as a faceless, helmeted German soldier approaches. He gently strokes Pina’s arm. After throwing him a disdainful glance, she brusquely slaps his hand away. We then cut to Francesco being dragged, scraped across the courtyard into the back of a van. Pina cries out his name. Vigorously pushing and writhing, she finally escapes the clutches of the German soldier and makes a desperate rush for her fiancé. Everyone tries to stop her - enemy soldiers, friends, neighbours, her young son, even local priest Don Pietro - but she won’t be stopped. Pina careers after the open-backed truck holding Francesco as it moves off. We cut to Don Pietro who winces, pulling Pina’s son toward him. Shots ring out. Pina collapses.

If ever a performer has been identified so closely with one particular scene, it’s Anna Magnani and this scene - the tragic death of her character Pina in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Here was a character refusing to be cowed into submission, a character fiercely devoted to the anti-fascist cause, a fighter. Cinema audiences - especially those outside of Italy - hadn’t seen anything like it before. In December 1945, the critic for Variety noted that the ‘top performance is turned in by Anna Magnani […] she is not a heroine in the Hollywood conception, as she is not only homely, but even quite slovenly and rather ordinary’. We can certainly argue about the critic’s choice of words here  - ‘slovenly’ in particular - but the fact that Magnani’s style seemed to be such a radical departure from the gloss and shine of Hollywood performers is without question.

Magnani’s career immediately pre- and post-Rome Open City was a varied one. Yes, she played the down-to-earth, no-nonsense popolana (woman of the people), but she could also play a capricious vedette (Teresa Venerdi) or an opera singer (Before Him All Rome Trembled). This is perhaps what needs to be emphasised about Magnani, that she came from a background in theatre, in comedy (as did her Rome Open City co-star Aldo Fabrizi). She was not a performer ‘taken from the streets’, but an experienced, versatile actor of stage and screen who had grown increasingly frustrated by the paucity of natural, complex female characters in the scripts she was being offered.

In 1948 and 1949, Magnani took on a couple of memorable roles, both of which allow for fascinating comparison with screen divas of both past and present. In 1948’s Assunta Spina she plays a character made famous by silent film icon Francesca Bertini more than three decades earlier. Set in Naples at the turn of the century, Assunta is a young woman left disfigured by her jealous lover. Magnani is flanked by two major figures in Neapolitan theatre and film, siblings Titina and Eduardo De Filippo, with the latter also serving as screenwriter.

Magnani had been in a relationship with Roberto Rossellini since the production of Rome Open City, but in the late-1940s, the couple split after the director began a well-publicised professional and personal relationship with Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish actress had written a letter to him praising his work and offering to collaborate on future projects. The first film they ended up making together was Stromboli (1950), the tale of a young Lithuanian woman who marries a Sicilian man but finds life in his small community stifling, and even hostile. The part played by Bergman had originally been earmarked for Magnani and, enraged by what she deemed a betrayal, the Italian actress made her own version of the story under the direction of German filmmaker and Hollywood stalwart William Dieterle, Volcano (1949). The competing productions were all over the Italian - and indeed international - gossip columns, with one paper referring to the situation as ‘The War of the Volcanoes’ (this is also the title of Francesco Patierno’s 2012 documentary on the saga). For Rossellini and Bergman, it was the beginning of several years of negative, often savage press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Magnani never forgot her ex-lover’s betrayal and they rarely crossed paths in the following years, but her own career went from strength to strength in the 1950s. Acclaimed American playwright Tennessee Williams wrote a part in his play The Rose Tattoo (1951) specifically for her and while she was unable to perform in the original theatrical production, she went on to star in the film version opposite Burt Lancaster in 1955. In the following year, she won an Oscar for her performance, edging out acting royalty such as Katherine Hepburn, Susan Hayward and Jennifer Jones. Later Hollywood films included George Cukor’s Wild is the Wind (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1959). Magnani’s co-star in Lumet’s picture - none other than Marlon Brando - told interviewer James Grissom in 1990 that ‘both Magnani and I worked like fighters - we each went to our corner of the ring, bounced around ideas and our energies and then came out fighting. I have never worked with anyone who had the intense energy she had - she was beyond volcanic; she was a range of volcanoes, each ready to explode.’

  Pasquale Iannone is Teaching Fellow in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a critic, broadcaster and Director of the Italian Film Festival 

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