La Magnani: Italy’s Legendary Actress Gets Her Due

Sandra Bertrand


They called her “the Volcano,” along with other terms of endearment, and it was no exaggeration.  Italians, and soon after the rest of the world, rushed to their local movie houses to see Anna Magnani’s next eruption of raw emotion, the smoking embers from her performance burning in their memories.

Enrico Cerasuolo’s documentary, Anna Magnani: A Passion in the Making (MHZ Choice), is a whirlwind tour through the life of this volcanic star. Both rhapsodic and reflective, her story is told through passionate film clips and revealing memories from directors, male co-stars, her only son, and the actress herself.  What emerges is a complex and sometimes contradictory picture of a woman who remained elusive but irresistible to her millions of fans.



Born in Rome in 1908 to an Egyptian mother and an indeterminate father, she was raised by her grandmother, learning the language of the common people.  Never just “a pretty face,” she took to the stage like a duck to water, grateful for any role to subsist.  But it wasn’t until Roberto Rossellini cast her as Pina in Rome, Open City—a tragic woman shot down by Nazis as she attempts to save her husband, that she became “La Magnani.”  Neo-Realism cinema reigned in post-war Italy, and she was its goddess.  

Yet happiness seemed to elude her. The only memory she could conjure of such a moment was when she saw her 3-year-old son Luca running freely before he was struck down by polio. “It’s beautiful to feel free inside,” she said.  The adult Luca’s impressions were of a self-made woman, a feminist before her time.

Magnani’s men had much to say about working with her. The writer/directors: “You had to accept her ideas or refuse them—she was incredibly inventive.” (Luchino Visconti). “She had the fear of a little girl, overcompensating with anger.” (Federico Fellini). “She was beyond convention as no one I’ve ever known” (Tennessee Williams). It was Williams who dubbed her “The Tigress of the Tiber” according to John Lahr’s 2014 biography of the playwright.  



It was also Williams who was responsible for Magnani’s Oscar, having written The Rose Tattoo just for her. Weighing in on Marlon Brando, her co-star, she found him “adorable” as an actor but as a man, “(we) were too much alike.” The most passionate impression was from actor Marcello Mastroianni, who found that working with her was the “only time I had goosebumps.”  She possessed “the most magnificent eyes.”

We are given glimpses of the meteoric range of emotions the actress projected, and they are mesmerizing.  May they be enough to bring new devotees to her doorstep. For Magnani was the real thing – a true talent whose turn on the screen captured fans worldwide.



Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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All images courtesy of MHZ Choice
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