While in the middle of making his famed War Trilogy, Italian neorealist master Roberto Rossellini made another film with Rome Open City star Anna Magnani. Titled L’Amore, the film is more famous for the stir it caused in the U.S. than as a film itself. But it is a marvel and a true masterpiece hidden behind Rossellini’s other post-war classics.
L’Amore (“Love” in Italian), which premiered at the 1948 Venice Film Festival, is actually two separate stories, both of which provide a showcase for Magnani’s skills.
The first story is the shorter of the two and is titled “The Human Voice.” Based on a story by the great French poet/writer/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, it has Mangnani starring as a nameless woman holed up in a hotel room. She is desperately talking to an ex-lover on the phone. Only through dialogue do we lean that the man is about to get married, but the woman is still in love with him. Filled with long takes and slow camera movement around Magnani, this is a filmed play. But Magnani is so arresting that you can’t look away. It’s fascinating to see every facial movement as she desperately reacts to words we cannot hear. Rossellini declined to give the person on the other end of the phone call a voice, meaning we can only imagine for ourselves what the man is telling her. Since Rossellini himself left Magnani hanging in real life two years after the movie was made so he could work with Ingrid Bergman, the sequence gains extra weight.
The second story, “The Miracle,” conceived by Federico Fellini, is the one that caused a stir in the U.S. Magnani plans Nanni, a troubled peasant who believes she has seen St. Joseph when a hiker (Fellini) crosses her path. The hiker takes advantage of her. When she realizes she is pregnant, she thinks she is pregnant with a child of god. Other peasants torture her and others laugh at her. But through it all, “The Miracle” is another test of love’s strength. In this case, it’s a mother’s love for a child, no matter what.
Thanks to “The Miracle,” L’Amore is the film at the center of Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was decided in 1952 and ruled that movies are protected under the First Amendment. (You can read the entire case here.)
Now that we are far removed from that decision though, we can see L’Amore for what it is – another masterpiece on Rossellini’s resume. It is also a fantastic example of a collaboration between a director and his leading star. The film wouldn’t have any of its power without Magnani’s performances.
Janus Films does have distribution of L’Amore, so it is available on the Criterion Collection’s Hulu page. It was screened on TCM on March 31.