London, April, 1949
At last, with the first quarter of the year behind us, we have 1949’s first major film. It comes from Italy, where they have a knack, just now, of making pictures that make pictures really seem to matter. The star is Anna Magnani, whom British audiences saw in Open City. The director is Luigi Zampa, who made Vivere in pace. The script — and even with a very small knowledge of Italian, hardly more than a mixture of half-remembered Latin, the Italian of the opera scores, and happy guesswork, it is possible to appreciate that the script is keen and delicate — is by the young writer Piero Tellini, who was responsible for the screen-writing of Vivere in pace and Four Steeps in the Clouds.
A lot of talent may add up to a very small result in the cinema, where so many imponderables can dull the bright edge of imagination, but Angelina is one of those happy pictures in which everything seems to have gone right, from script to screening.
Angelina is a comedy, which is not to say that it is either a romp or a trifle. Its pace is tremendously fast, and its tone is predominantly light, but it is full of moments when humour is very close to pathos. Director and script-writer have done here for urban folk very much what they did for country people in Vivere in pace.
The scene is a derelict housing estate on the out-skirts of Rome; not the heady Rome of the sight-seer, nor the grand Rome of history, but the poor slum district of Pietralata. Angelina is the wife of a local police-sergeant and mother of many children, who is gradually edged into the position of a sort of housewifely agitator for her neighbours. Because she can shout loud, talk volubly, and is utterly fearless; because she has no malice in her bones and not a scrap of self-consciousness in her body, she becomes the terror of black marketeers, grasping landowners and civil authorities, and official spokesman for all the wives and mothers of Pietralata. For a time her successful efforts to get the workers moved out of their flooded houses, into a vast new block of luxury flats, put her under suspicion and conniving with the landlord, a suspicion that is heightened by her son’s hanky-panky with some free medical supplies, and the fact that the landlord’s son is in love with Angelina’s daughter. For a few weeks she goes to gaol, but to everybody’s intense relief, the film ends happily; and the men in the audience will be delighted to find that this admirable woman eventually gives up politics and decides that her real place is with her husband and children.
For her performance in this piece Anna Magnani was awarded the International prize for the best actress of the year at a recent Venice festival. I can only say that the award has my loudest cheers, for Mme. Magnani is one of the very few ladies of the screen, at any time, in any country, who can fairly be described as a great actress. A slight, dark woman, with strong features and no remarkable beauty, she suggests a combination of our Gracie Fields and a minor Duse. It would be hard to say which she has studied the more deeply, the technique of acting or human nature. This is one of the rare, real performances that enrich the screen, and gives films the sort of prestige the often seen so willfully anxious to avoid.