Two, or maybe three, women

Something I’m figuring out about Roberto Rossellini is that the guy defied labels as much as anyone this side of Bob Dylan. He’s known as the father of neorealism, a claim less true than it is received as true, and even if it were true it’d still be confining him within the relatively small box of his early career, pretty much like describing Joyce as a master of the Bildungsroman. The first sign that he had bigger ideas in mind came in 1948 when he made L’Amore smack-dab in between Paisan and Germany Year Zero. It consists of two short films, both totally removed from the world of Nazis and both starring Anna Magnani. Cocteau’s A Human Voice is a one-woman show: it’s Magnani, a telephone, and her ex-lover’s dog. The ex-lover calls two or maybe three times, and the movie consists of Magnani’s increasingly hysterical attempts to either lure him back or make him leave her the hell alone so she can get on with whatever is coming next. We can’t hear his side of the conversation, but we can read enough in her responses to know what line of bull he’s feeding her at any given moment. That leaves us pretty much with her. Magnani was a magnificent looking woman but here she’s had all the life drained out of her, and she slogs from bed to chair to window wrapped in an old shawl and pours her heart out into a plastic prop for 30 minutes. If Rossellini’s great theme is, as I increasingly see it, the need for us to get over our own shit, and to get outside our eternal fascination with our piddling little selves so we can join the world outside, then A Human Voice is his Inferno.

The Miracle, on the other hand, might be his Paradise, if not your typical one. At first glance Magnani’s character here doesn’t have much of an edge on Miss Lonelyhearts. Oh, Nanni lives in a scenic little town and spends her days traipsing the mountains with a herd of goats, but she’s apparently homeless, she’s probably a little cracked, and she’s definitely alone in the world. One day she chances upon a handsome stranger played by a very young, very blond Federico Fellini (who also happened to write this chapter.) He doesn’t say a word, and really does nothing beyond repeatedly press his wine bottle on Nanni; Nanni, however, coming from whatever fractured mental state she lives in, takes him for St. Joseph and opens herself up to him. When she wakes up alone on the mountainside with her dress in need of realignment, “St. Joseph” has quietly moved on down the trail.

Nanni’s knocked up, of course, and that’s where the film really begins; with her descent back to her village the townspeople hear her story, and the predictable results follow in close order–the bottom comes when a mob openly pursues her in the street and forces her to don robes of rags and a chamberpot for a crown. (Nobody does abasement and emotional pain quite like Magnani did.) Nanni’s flight from the town nearly kills her but it winds up taking her to an unexpected oasis from the storm–a mystical place that may not exist outside her head, but where she can at least bear her child in peace. When The Miracle came out in the U.S., the Church thought so little of it that it tried to have the movie banned, and the case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which held that movies are entitled to all the same First Amendment protection that the press is. This crazy idea that came out of little Freddy Fellini’s head…

Also, All That Heaven Allows. You’d think after something like L’Amore a Rock Hudson picture would seem like coming back to Earth, but, um, no. Even though Heaven has its nutty aspects–Hudson stole Elmer Fudd’s hunting jacket for his role and he talks to everyone in the slowed-down monotone of a stage hypnotist, and his “nonconformist” friends would fit right in at one of Broadway Danny Rose’s Thanksgiving dinners–the totality of its visual design makes it a fairly haunting experience. The characters come and go repeating all the typical bland ’50s dialog, but everyone is so extraordinarily lit that I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next. And as an all-out assault on American values–Jane Wyman’s kids turn out to be monsters, her friends turn out to be Gorgons, and the town’s menfolk turn out to be alcoholic sex-fiends, while everybody thinks Jane would get over her Thoreau-reading gardener and be a good pod if she’d just buy a goddam TV set–it’s pretty hot for 1955.

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