Anna Magnani — pure passion. We discussed Italian film stars earlier this month. We couldn’t end the year without discussing Italy’s most famous film export.
And what’s more, she is the favorite of none other than Pope Francis, recently revealed as a classic film fan.
The Pope was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in late 1936 in Buenos Aires. His parents — both Italian immigrants — took him to the cinema often when he was growing up, and according to him, made sure he saw all the films of Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, both (pictured below) Italian stars of the 1940s and 50s.
Magnani and Fabrizi are the co stars of Roberto Rossellini’s classic Rome, Open City (Roma, Citta Aperta), Rosselini’s neorealist masterpiece shot in 1945 in the streets of war ravaged Rome.
Magnani is terrific as a widow, impregnated by a next door neighbor, who rises with great courage in the face of the extraordinary depredations inflicted by Nazi occupation.
Fabrizi plays a stalwart Catholic priest executed in shocking fashion for his political beliefs. His role is as central to the picture as was Magnani’s, and both deliver unforgettable performances.
Born in Rome in 1908 (she died in 1973) Magnani was the product of a tough upbringing; she never knew her father, was abandoned by her mother and raised in poverty by her maternal grandmother.
She bore a son out of wedlock, who contracted polio necessitating lifelong care. A short marriage ended in an annulment.
Magnani had to work hard for everything she got. She toiled her way through drama school by singing in cabarets and in night clubs, and then took to the regional stage before starting a film career in the early Forties.
After Rome, Open City, Magnani’s career took off. She remains one of the few stars of primarily Italian cinema to become a top-line personality in Hollywood.
She won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Serafina Delle Rose in the 1955 film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. The part of a widowed Sicilian woman in the American south whose life is upended by a lusty truck driver (Burt Lancaster) was written expressly for Magnani.
The movie was nominated for five Oscars, and Magnani is only the third Italian star to receive an Academy Award (the other winners are Sophia Loren and Roberto Begnini).
Lancaster later said that Magnani was the greatest actress with whom he ever worked.