Her most memorable films are Bellissima (1951, Luchino Visconti), in which she plays an indefatigable stage mother determined to boost her little girl into a movie career, and Mamma Roma (1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini), in which her title-roleist strives to retire from prostitution to mother a now teenaged son. Both works are firmly rooted in Italian neo-realism. That genre's breakthrough film, Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), also sent Magnani's career into orbit with a great death scene as a heroic partisan's wife. Her relationship with Rossellini, on-camera and off, continued with a twin bill: L'Amore (1948), comprised of The Human Voice and The Miracle. Rossellini dedicated the second to "the art of Anna Magnani." But when it arrived in the U.S. in 1950, it entered the history of movie censorship rather than the history of cinema.
With the passage of time, it becomes abundantly clear that of the two films, Rossellini was right to dedicate The Miracle to Magnani. Although Rossellini knew his share of troubles with the Church, and was not a practicing Catholic, his interest in Christian values was sincere enough to make him undertake a serious film about St. Francis of Assisi (The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950) that he was to declare his own personal favorite among his films. (Federico Fellini, his young co-scenarist in The Miracle, also collaborated with him on the St. Francis film.) More than a simpatico relationship with animals unites Magnani's character, Nanni, a peasant outcast who scrounges a living by herding goats up and down the rocky slopes overlooking her village, and the gentle, forbearing 12th century monk who founded the Franciscan order.
Magnani's Nanni is an innocent, and a fervent one, given to filling her lonely life with heartfelt prayer. When a tall, bearded stranger (Fellini, speaking no lines in his only acting appearance) trudges past her in the hills, her eyes light up. She believes he's St. Joseph. He stops, she spends a lot of time exclaiming. He offers her wine from his straw-covered bottle, a lot of wine. Soon, she's tipsy. They recline. Blackout. When she awakens, surrounded by goats, he's gone. Time passes, she discovers there has been a conception but, sadly for her, not an immaculate one. When a nun tells her she must confess, Nanni refuses. "My conscience is clear. God loves me," she cries. He may, but the villagers do not. When she collapses while minding others' babies, the townswomen mock her. When other villagers who never bothered with her now hail her, Nanni discovers they're only cruelly baiting her.
They crown her with a chipped, dented enameled basin, poke at her enlarged belly, jeer and send her from them. It's no crown of thorns, but it marks her Calvary. Up, up, up the steep stone stairs she climbs to the hills above, saying, "Forgive them Father, they know not what they do." The Christian symbolism, in which this film is replete, has her look down on the village from a height (one of the few moments she isn't occupying the frame), where the villagers, whose treatment of Nanni has been anything but Christian, ironically are going through the motions of a solemn Marian procession. At another point, Nanni switches from Christ surrogate to Eve surrogate, stealing an apple from the basket of a praying peasant in church. Before she struggles up the mountain to a final stony rejection at an unwelcoming stone manor house, she morphs into Marian mode herself. Like St. Francis, she had been kept company by birds. Unlike St. Francis, one of her goats accompanies her up the path. When she can't gain entrance at the locked iron gate, the goat leads her to a stone shed at the rear. And there this intense but quite chaste film ends.
Like those more recent censorship magnets, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Jean-Luc Godard's Hail, Mary (1985) and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the obvious seriousness of intention and respect for its subject refutes, better than any argument in any court, any censors ready to pull the trigger simply because a film has been made about and references a religious subject in non-traditional ways. Not that there weren't legal battles attached to L'Amore (released in 1950 in the U.S. as Ways of Love). After winning the New York Film Critics Circle award for best foreign film, the Legion of Decency condemned The Miracle in 1951 as "anti-Catholic" and "sacrilegious." After New York State censors revoked the license to show the film, a 1952 lawsuit led to a Supreme Court decision declaring it a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantee.
The Human Voice is in every way a lesser work. Drawn from a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau, it's a monologue in which Magnani portrays a woman on the night before her breakup with her lover is to become irrevocable. He's marrying another woman the next day. Her co-stars are a dog and, mostly, a phone, as she flails around her bedroom in nightgown and robe, in near-disarray, pouncing on intermittent calls from soon-to-be ex. It's not the lines she speaks that give Magnani's performance its life. They're often banal to the point where you wonder how Magnani is going to make this exercise work. It's her face in closeup that does the job, whether expressing raw suffering, or aching anxiety when, running her hands over her face while looking in a mirror at unforgiving evidence that she's alone and getting older. She goes through the motions of being stoical and brave, but she's dancing on the edge of a crackup. Of Magnani's immersion in the abandoned woman's tempest of emotion, there can be no doubt. Ironically, the Supreme Court's go-ahead didn't get L'Amore much subsequent U.S. distribution. Once cleared, legal complications over the rights to Cocteau's original blocked it a second time. In more ways than one, The Human Voice became the Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)of love.
Producer: Roberto Rossellini
Director: Roberto Rossellini (segment "Miracolo, Il")
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini (screenplay (segment "La voce umana"); Ramon Maria de Valle-Inclan (novel); Jean Cocteau (play, segment "La voce umana"); Federico Fellini (story "Il Miracolo," segment "Miracolo, Il"); Anna Benevuti (segment "Voce umana, Una"); Tullio Pinelli (segment "Miracolo, Il")
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin, Robert Juillard (segment "La voce umana"), Otello Martelli (segment "La voce umana"), Claude Renoir, Aldo Tonti (segment "Miracolo, Il")
Art Direction: Christian Bérard (segment "Il miracolo")
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Film Editing: Eraldo Da Roma (segment "La voce umana")
Cast: Anna Magnani (The woman (segment "Una voce umana")/Nannina (segment "Il miracolo"), Lia Corelli (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Federico Fellini (The Tramp (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Jucci Kellerman (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Micia (Nanni's dog, uncredited), Elli Parvo (Paola (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Peparuolo (Monk (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Amelia Robert (Teacher (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Odette Roger (Marie (segment "Il miracolo"," uncredited), Roswita Schmidt (Anna (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited), Annie Toinon (Jofroi's wife Barbe (segment "Il miracolo," uncredited)
by Jay Carr