Film historian Barry Monush calls the late, great actress Anna Magnani “the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema.” Others have described her breathlessly as “fierce, funny, and heartbreaking, Magnani remains one of the most electrifying presences ever to inhabit a movie screen.” “The greatest actress I have ever seen.” “The greatest actress I have ever worked with.” “In a crowded room she can sit perfectly motionless and silent and still you feel the atmospheric tension of her presence, its quiver and hum in the air like a live wire exposed.”
Magnani was a force of nature, her own. Directors often stood back and let her shape her performances and as fulsome as they were, she never disappointed. She was captivating, sometimes shocking and always fiery, refusing to edit herself. What she left behind onscreen is deeply authentic, gleaned from a rich, difficult life and an unquenchable spirit. She never disappointed. TIFF Cinematheque presents 24 of Magnani’s films and one short in its current retrospective. We spoke with Senior Programmer James Quandt about Magnani for whom he has a clear affection.
The word volcano comes up various quotes about Magnani and in the title of the series – how is an appropriate comparison?
James Quandt: Actually, a lot of “v” words are used to describe Magnani – volcanic as you rightly point out, but also volatile, voracious, vital, vehement. Volcanic surely applies as she was known for her lava-like eruptions of all kinds: anger, laughter, mockery, sorrow.
Anna Magnani has an incredibly powerful presence. She studied at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Art but has something you can’t find through technique. What is it?
JQ: Raw, unvarnished emotion. Magnani could switch emotions from one extreme to another — sobs to raucous laughter – in a split second. She was totally unfettered and natural, with no artifice or stylization.
Not many actors could withstand the force that was Marlon Brando in a scene, but she did. She dominated him. Please comment.
JQ – Magnani often commented that no man could ever dominate her, though Rossellini certainly tried! (They fought a lot.) Her relationship with Brando was very vexed because she was determined to have an affair with him, which he did not want, and when she insisted on rehearsing their amorous scenes in private, he tried to avoid her, and when she made sexual advances, he pinched her nose to fend her off. He was also very resentful that The Fugitive Kind became a showcase for her, subjugating his role.
Her toughness and resiliency is a common description of her – did she have a tough life?
JQ – She did indeed. She was abandoned by her parents — her Egyptian father went back to his home country, and her Italian mother followed him, so she was raised by her grandparents. She felt very vulnerable as a child, and she came from nothing, which meant that she always identified with il popolo (she said she “hated respectability”). She was capable of being very glamorous (see her get-up in The Passionate Thief), but her best roles were as plain, proletarian mothers, streetwalkers, fruit vendors. Her only child contacted polio as a baby, and she spent all of her early earnings (and energies) on treatments for him.
How did it shape her as an actor and woman?
JQ – She could draw on her profound experience of impoverishment and abandonment for her roles as an anguished, humiliated, or yearning woman, such as the stage mother in Bellissima or the streetwalker attempting to go straight and keep her teenaged son out of trouble in Mamma Roma.
Roberto Minervini talked about Magnani facing discrimination – what was that about?
JQ – For example, she almost did not land the role that made her an international sensation, as Pina in Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Rossellini almost passed her over because she demanded that she be paid the same as her male co-star, Aldo Fabrizi.
Magnani was completely radical as an actress in the fifties – she wasn’t conventionally beautiful or subservient or cute. Directors left her alone let her do her thing because of her natural fire. Were they a little intimidated?
JQ – I think the best directors of Magnani are those who let her “rip,” who do not try to contain or control her. Look at that opening sequence in Mamma Roma, where her performance is so outsized, so bawdy and outrageous. Glorious! Or that heart-rending moment in Bellissima where she cries out her agony — a moment that she improvised.
She rarely played elegant or society types, did that ever bother her?
JQ – She had some glam roles, mostly in lesser known comedies, such as Peddlin’ in Society where she plays a woman who becomes rich and attempts to remake herself as an aristocrat, but she mostly played working class women. Towards the end of her career she did express resentment that she was tired of the typecasting of her as a “shrewish” wife.
How did stardom sit with her?
JQ – She was fine with stardom, and was revered by the Italian population – her funeral was mobbed.
Describe her legacy and why you chose to do a retrospective on her, please.
JQ – We dedicated a retrospective to Magnani in the very first season of the Cinematheque, 27 years ago, so there is a nice symmetry in the presentation. In the intervening years, her reputation as one of the screen’s greatest performers has only grown, as more and more contemporary actresses discover her; for example, Cate Blanchett recently cited her as one of her four “beauty icons.” And one need only to look at our line-up of great films by all the major Italian auteurs – Visconti, Fellini, Rossellini, Pasolini, Monicelli, Lattuada et al – to gauge why a Magnani retrospective is always necessary!
VOLCANO: THE FILMS OF ANNA MAGNANI:
4K Digital Restoration
Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta)
dir. Roberto Rossellini | Italy | 1945 | 106 min. | 14A | Digital
Friday, February 3 at 11 a.m.
dir. Luchino Visconti | Italy | 1953 | 18 min.| PG | Digital
Friday, February 3 at 6:30 p.m.
Down with Misery (Abbasso la miseria!)
dir. Gennaro Righelli | Italy | 1945 | 90 min. | PG | 35mm
Saturday, February 4 at 7:30 p.m.
The Peddler and the Lady (Campo de’ fiori)
dir. Mario Bonnard | Italy | 1943 | 95 min. | PG | 35mm
Sunday, February 5 at 4:15 p.m.
Wild is the Wind
dir. George Cukor | USA | 1957 | 114 min. | PG | 16mm
Tuesday, February 7 at 6:30 p.m.
The Rose Tattoo (with Marlon Brando)
dir. Daniel Mann | USA | 1955 | 117 min. | PG | 35mm
Thursday, February 9 at 6:30 p.m.
The Fugitive Kind
dir. Sidney Lumet | USA | 1960 | 121 min. | 14A | 35mm
Sunday, February 12 at 4:00 p.m.
dir. Roberto Rossellini | Italy | 1948 | 69 min. | PG | 35mm
The Bandit (Il bandito)
dir. Alberto Lattuada | Italy | 1946 | 78 min. | PG | 35mm
Tuesday, February 14 at 6:30 p.m.
Angelina (L’onorevole Angelina)
dir. Luigi Zampa | Italy | 1947| 90 min. | 14A | 35mm
Thursday, February 16 at 6:30 p.m.
dir. Vittorio De Sica | Italy | 1941 | 94 min. | 14A | 35mm.
Thursday, February 23 at 6:30 p.m.
dir. Federico Fellini | Italy/France | 1972 | 128 min. | R | Digital
Thursday, November 17 at 6:30 p.m.
The Golden Coach (Le Carosse d’or)
dir. Jean Renoir | Italy/France | 1952 | 100 min. | PG | 35mm
Saturday, February 25 at 1:00 p.m.
Peddlin’ in Society (Abbasso la ricchezza!)
dir. Gennaro Righelli | Italy | 1946 | 85 min. | 35mm
Sunday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m
dir. William Dieterle | Italy | 1950 | 106 min. | 14A | 35mm
Tuesday, February 28 at 6:30 p.m.
dir. Alfredo Giannetti | Italy | 1971 | 92 min. | 14A | 35mm
Thursday, March 2 at 6:30 p.m.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria
dir. Stanley Kramer | USA | 1969 | 139 min. | PG | 35mm.
Friday, March 3 at 9:00 p.m.
…And the Wild Women (Nella città l’inferno)
dir. Renato Castellani | Italy/France | 1959 | 106 min. | PG | 35mm
Sunday, March 5 at 6:45 p.m.
Full Speed (Tempo Massimo)
dir. Mario Mattoli | Italy | 1934 | 78 min. | PG | 35mm
Tuesday, March 7 at 6:30 p.m.
1870 (Correva l’anno di grazia 1870)
dir. Alfredo Giannetti | Italy | 1972 | 116 min. | PG | 35mm
Friday, March 10 at 9:00 p.m.
Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella)
dir. Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia | Italy | 1943 | 76 min. | PG | 35mm
Woman Trouble (Molti sogni per le strade)
dir. Mario Camerini | Italy | 1948 | 84 min. | PG | 35mm
Saturday, March 11 at 1:30 p.m.