Many point to Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy as a birthplace of modern cinema.
Many point to Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy as a birthplace of modern cinema, as it boasts a scene that rivals the Odessa Steps or Buster Keaton hanging from a speeding locomotive as one of cinema’s most indelible. Coupled with de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief as the touchstones of Italy’s neo-realist moment, Rome, Open City (1945), the first of the trilogy, may be the story of Italian resistance against the Nazis, but in many ways the story of creating the film is just as exciting as the movie itself.
Most famously is that scene, where a lead character is mowed down by German machine guns as she chases after the truck with which they are taking away her fiancé. Inspired by the true killing of Teresa Gullace, an Italian woman shot to death by Germans when trying to pass a bundle to her imprisoned husband, the moment not only shifts the tone of Rome, Open City towards something more tragic, but launched the career of one of Italy’s biggest stars.
Anna Magnani was born in 1908, though little else about her origin is known for certain. Some say she was born in Rome, while others claim Egypt. After enrolling in a French convent school in Rome, the young Magnani realized she enjoyed performing. She learned to play the piano and liked watching the nuns act in Christmas plays. When she turned 17, Magnani began to study at a prestigious drama school, although there are some accounts that contradict even this fact. During this time, however, Magnani began finding work singing at cabarets, earning comparisons to Édith Piaf. During the ‘30s, Magnani began acting in experimental films, eventually marrying director Goffredo Alessandrini.
Magnani had been working in film for nearly 20 years before Rossellini featured her in Rome, Open City. Though she worked with de Sica earlier that decade, in Friday Teresa (1941), it took the tragic moment where Magnani is gunned down to truly inaugurate her career. Of course, there is the zeitgeist to consider. Italy was reeling from World War II; in fact, the war was still taking place in parts of the country when production began in January 1945. Rossellini went broke financing the picture and, since there was no film stock being produced, the director and his team had to piece the movie together on scraps they found. And although Rome, Open City opened to jeers from critics in September, it spoke to a universal condition for those suffering in Italy and became immensely popular.
Magnani ascended to the level of a national symbol as Rome, Open City propelled the former nightclub singer to stardom.
During the filming of Rome, Open City, the then-divorced Magnani fell into a passionate and violent affair with her director. Though she once considered him “the ideal man,” they fought constantly but continued to work together on films. However, she did not appear in the other War Trilogy installments.
A rupture between Magnani and Rossellini occurred five years later when he promised the actress a role in his film Stromboli, but eventually gave it to Ingrid Bergman. Adding insult to injury, the director then began an affair with his Swedish star. That was the end for Magnani and the auteur, though that didn’t prevent the actress from working with other big-name directors. Following her break with Rossellini, Magnani would work with a multitude of big names including Visconti, Renoir, Pasolini and Fellini (who helped write Rome, Open City). However, it was her first English-language role that finally earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Appearing opposite Burt Lancaster in The Rose Tattoo (1955), written by Tennessee Williams, Magnani played a widowed mother, a role that also earned her accolades from a variety of other associations including the New York Film Critics Circle.
Despite her success, Magnani lived a tortured off-screen existence. She did not sleep or eat well. She drank a lot of coffee and smoked. An interest in the arcane influenced many of her decisions and she considered herself a clairvoyant.
Magnani died in 1973 at the age of 65 from pancreatic cancer. In her final film, Fellini’s Roma (1972), she played herself. Though she dominates the first half of Rome, Open City, there is nothing as indelible as that panic-stricken moment when she chases after the Nazis who have captured her man. Magnani’s funeral drew record crowds and at first she was laid to rest in Roberto Rosselini’s mausoleum. However, her body has since been moved to a cemetery in the region of Lazio where she is one of the most famous people interred at the Cimitero Comunale of San Felice Circeo.