Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film L’amore declares itself “an homage to the art of Anna Magnani,” which is an apt description. It’s essentially an anthology film, and although it’s only made up of two shorts — Una voce umana (based on Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix humaine) and Il miracolo — it’s convincing proof of Magnani’s talent and range, because the characters she plays in the two pieces are so different and yet both so believable.
In Una voce umana (“A human voice” in English), Magnani plays a woman who has recently parted ways with her lover of five years. The entire episode takes place in her bedroom, and despite the fact that she spends most of the running time on the phone with her ex-boyfriend, the audience never sees or hears him, or anyone other than Magnani (unless you count a small dog who pops up from time to time). As this description suggests, it’s decidedly stagy, but Magnani’s compelling performance — going from feigned indifference to gut-wrenching despair — overcomes the piece’s limits.
(For an interesting comparison, check out 2014’s La voce umana, starring Sophia Loren and directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Through wordless flashbacks and shots of other goings-on in the main character’s house, it “opens up” Cocteau’s play much more than the Magnani/Rossellini version. I saw it on TCM several months ago, before watching L’amore, and it’s hard to say which one I liked better.)
Much as I liked Una voce umana, was the second segment, Il miracolo, that really prompted this post. In this story, Magnani plays a naive woman (according to her neighbors, a madwoman, which she deeply resents) who encounters a man she believes to be Saint Joseph. After plying her with alcohol, the man takes advantage of her (nothing is shown), and when she finds herself pregnant and unable to explain how it happened, she assumes that a new Immaculate Conception has taken place. Her neighbors do not react sympathetically.
One of the most notable aspects of Il miracolo is the fact that the pseudo-Saint Joseph is played by none other than Federico Fellini, still two years away from Variety Lights, his directorial (or, to be precise, co-directorial) debut.
At this point in his career, Fellini was primarily a screenwriter, and he came up with the story for Il miracolo. Because I was aware of that going into the film, I was struck by how closely Magnani’s character, Nannina, resembled some of the characters in Fellini’s later work — specifically, Gelsomina in La strada and Cabiria in Nights of Cabiria. Both of those characters were played by Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s wife), and though I don’t think of Magnani and Masina as similar actresses, I found myself imagining Masina in the same role without difficulty.
Nannina seems to lie somewhere between the two characters, combining Gelsomina’s ingenuousness with Cabiria’s verbosity and feistiness. However, they all have at least one thing in common. In a 1962 interview (quoted and translated in the book Fellini on Fellini), Fellini said of his films:
There is an effort to show a world without love, characters full of selfishness, people exploiting one another, and, in the midst of it all, there is always – and especially in the films with Giulietta – a little creature who wants to give love and who lives for love.
He probably didn’t have L’amore in mind, but the same basic idea was certainly there at that early stage of his career.