The Mother and the Whore

Bette Davis called Anna Magnani "the greatest actress I have ever seen"; Pauline Kael said she was "the most 'real' of actresses." The superlatives befit a performer often associated with explosive bursts of emotion, one who seems to be the archetype of grit and vitality. Yet this rawness didn't come easily. "She has to rip herself into pieces to get what she wants," Sidney Lumet noted of Magnani's acting process. MOMA's retrospective exemplifies the talents of an actress who transformed her agony into a performance style that seemed purely instinctual.

Born in 1908 in Rome and raised in poverty by her maternal grandmother, Magnani studied at Rome's Academy of Dramatic Art and sang in nightclubs and cabarets. She had worked in films for almost 20 years before gaining international renown as Pina in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist milestone Rome, Open City (1945). Her harrowing death scene remains one of cinema's most devastating moments. Other collaborations with Rossellini include two short films from 1948: The Miracle and The Human Voice. In the former, Magnani, playing a peasant outcast who believes the baby she's carrying is Christ, plumbs both the sorrow and the righteousness of being alone in the world. The latter film, based on Jean Cocteau's play about a woman desperately trying to salvage a relationship over the telephone, is remarkable for the ways in which Magnani's powerful moments of silence segue into cries of despair.

Magnani, famous for playing mothers and prostitutes, is keenly attuned to the demands of sacrifice and swagger. In Luchino Visconti's Bellissima (1951), she plays Maddalena, a blustery, obstinate stage mother who drags her daughter to Cinecittà for the "Prettiest Girl in Rome" contest. When she realizes that the studio heads are laughing at her daughter's screen test, a shattering close-up of Magnani's face reveals rage, humiliation, and maternal love. As the widowed mother of a teenage daughter in Daniel Mann's 1955 film of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo, Magnani's adroit, mercurial performing offsets the hammy Method acting of costar Burt Lancaster. The Wild, Wild Women (1958) is notable for pairing Magnani, as an unrepentant streetwalker, with Giulietta Masina in a women-in-prison film. In Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962), Magnani is both the mother and the whore, playing an irrepressible prostitute determined to give her teenage son a respectable middle-class life. It is the actress at her most volcanic, erupting with a laugh that could shake the earth.

 
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