- With an introduction by Bram Van Beek
On 10 November, Sabzian and Beursschouwburg present five short films by the Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini (1927–2021) as part of its Milestones series: La canta della marane (1962), Brindisi ’65 (1966), La Briglia sul collo (1974), Stendalì: Suonano ancora (1960) and Essere donne (1965). The selection of films represented in this series, made between 1960-74, feature the many different facets of her filmmaking, as well as her textual and musical collaborations, including those with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Egisto Macchi, her long-time composer.
Born in 1927 in the southern Italian town of Mola di Bari, Mangini began her career as a photographer. She moved to Rome in 1952 and first came into contact with cinema as an organiser in the Italian federation of film clubs, where she also met her future husband and lifelong collaborator Lino Del Fra. Mangini’s debut film Ignoti alla città [Unknown to the City] (1958), a film about disaffected and alienated youths in Rome’s postwar suburbs, is considered the first documentary ever made by a woman in a very male-centric, post-fascist Italian society. The film was inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novel Ragazzi di vita [The Street Kids] (1955), which prompted her to ask him to write the commentary for her film, after finding his address in the phonebook. They would collaborate on two more of her films, with Pasolini writing the script for La canta delle marane [The Blues of the Marshes] and Stendalì: suonano ancora [Here They Play Again] (1960).
Mangini’s films penetrate deeply into post-war Italy, where social reconstruction is struggling, especially in the south, and industrialisation is creating precarious conditions in the north. In front of her camera, the daily lives of Italians living socially on the margins become both poetic and political. Their words, but especially gestures, body language and facial expressions, contain a disruptive potential revealed by Mangini’s gaze, which was clearly shaped by neorealism. Perhaps not surprisingly, the young are very often at the centre of her work. As a representation of the future of the country, they caught her interest from early on, as films like Ignoti alla città, La canta delle marane, Tommaso (1965) and La briglia sul collo [The Bridle on the Neck] (1974) clearly show.
Besides her focus on the proletariat and the fate of the young and disenfranchised, Mangini’s filmmaking is also marked by a desire to capture the often disappearing ritual performances of Italy’s southern rural communities. Inspired by the research of Italian anthropologist and philosopher Ernesto de Martino, she records religious and magical rituals, staged or otherwise. Here Stendalì serves as the strongest example, a staged recording of a traditional mourning song in Griko dialect, spoken in the region of Puglia. Gathering the last surviving performers proficient in the art of lament, who live scattered among the small villages of the Grecìa Salentina area of Puglia, she believed funeral chants to be one of the highest forms of poetry. Through her collaboration with Pasolini, who created a Griko “replica” from the only remaining memories of the song, the film helps safeguard the practice from oblivion.Her quietly confrontational documentaries of daily life in Italy were censored for many years. In Mangini’s own words, the Italian system forced documentary filmmakers to act “under the radar like drug dealers”. Driven by a strong libertarian and anarchist sense, she never shied away from pointing an accusing finger at vested political powers. Mainly for this reason, her films have only recently started to be restored and re-exhibited.1
Milestones is a series of stand-alone screenings, hosted by Sabzian, of film-history milestones, reference works or landmarks, films that focus on aesthetic or political issues and stimulate debate and reflection. In earlier instalments, Sabzian presented Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1964), Jean-Luc Godard’s monumental video work Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), Robert Kramer’s Milestones (1974), Méditerranée (1963) and L’ordre (1973), two films by Jean-Daniel Pollet and recently Shadi Abdel Salam’s Al-mummia (1969), Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique ou les quatres saisons (1946), Al Dhakira al Khasba [Fertile Memory] (Michel Khleifi, 1980), Harun Farocki’s Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (1989) and Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1983). For each screening, Sabzian publishes texts that contextualize the film.
A sensuous and vibrant vision of a group of boys who leave home barefoot and without breakfast to congregate by a marane – a small stream – in the Roman suburbs, forming a microcosmic society in which they scavenge for food, fight, swim and play. La canta delle marane constitutes the third collaboration between Mangini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Filmed less than a five-minute walk from his first house in Rome, his scripted narration has resonances with his novel Ragazzi di vita (1955), an ode to “pre-political rebelliousness”, to a new generation disenfranchised by the post-war Italian party system. Yet the camera which lingers for a long time over these pre-pubescent boys’ limbs has something of Pasolini’s gaze too. As the physically disinhibited but not yet disenchanted boys of La Canta move between recreation and combat, Pasolini tells of what they will become: lone, petty criminals, often imprisoned, sometimes dead (Daniella Shreir).
« L’adieu nostalgique au monde enchanté des marrane (fossés, marécages), lieux magiques pour les jeunes habitants des périphéries romaines. Un des chefs-d’œuvre du cinéma documentaire italien, accompagné par le texte poignant de Pier Paolo Pasolini, écrit en romanesco, le dialecte de Rome. Le film commence par un cri, un appel. C’est la deuxième rencontre de Cecilia Mangini avec les garçons des banlieues romaines, l’été, dans l’eau sale des étangs près du quartier Settecamini (à l’époque, c’était un peu comme le bout du monde) et au milieu des broussailles, des décharges, des cailloux. En évoquant les exploits d’une bande de gamins inarrêtables, entre rossées, petits larcins et chahut, la caméra suit les visages, les rituels, les mouvements et l’espièglerie de ceux qui seront les futurs ragazzi di vita. Cette réalité est déjà révolue. C’est désormais le souvenir de l’un des irréductibles protagonistes de cette bande, des anti-héros qui s’affirment dans la liberté du jeu, dans le soulagement de la violence, dans le défi lancé à la loi, dans la moquerie qui s’adresse à nous, les extraterrestres, les spectateurs qui ne pourront jamais les comprendre ni les accueillir. C’est un film tourné sous forme de poème, mis en musique par Egisto Macchi au rythme des plongées dans le marécage, et du commentaire de Pasolini, écrit à la première personne. »
Anne-Violaine Houcke: Pourquoi êtes-vous retournée, trois ans plus tard, filmer les ragazzi ?
Cecilia Mangini: Je ne sais pas. C’est difficile de dire pourquoi j’ai voulu rendre cet hommage. Car là c’est vraiment un hommage à leur vitalité, à leur volonté de vivre, à leur capacité de s’opposer. Il se passe des choses en nous, des idées naissent, et peu à peu les idées s’agrègent, comme la naissance d’un enfant. Les cellules se multiplient, puis se distinguent les unes des autres, se diversifient. C’est ainsi que naissent des idées. Je ne me rappelle plus… Il y a beaucoup de documentaires auxquels nous avons pensé et que nous n’avons pas réalisés. Ce sont des idées mort-nées. Alors que l’idée de La canta delle marane est née, elle a grandi, et elle est devenue vitale, elle est devenue quelque chose.
Cecilia Mangini en conversation avec Anne-Violaine Houcke2
« Si Stendalì s’ouvrait sur l’itération inlassable des cloches, La canta delle marane s’ouvre sur un cri strident, sauvage, qui va crescendo, sur un plan du ciel en contre-plongée. La source en surgit soudain, par en bas : un gamin qui frappe sa bouche du plat de la main pour moduler son cri. Le chant des fossés est entré violemment dans l’image comme un retour du refoulé. Dans Ignoti alla città, le texte était à la troisième personne, en italien ; trois ans plus tard, Pasolini compose un texte original à la première personne, en romanesco, entrant dans la peau d’un ragazzo di vita. Il effectue ainsi cette « régression de l’auteur dans le milieu décrit, jusqu’à en assumer l’esprit linguistique le plus intime », dont il parlait à propos de Gadda dans un texte du 18 janvier 1958 : cette phrase, Pasolini la reprend à son propre propos quelques mois plus tard. Mais celui qui parle est un ragazzo devenu adulte, qui commenterait avec nostalgie les images d’un passé heureux. « Quel bon temps c’était, le temps des fossés… Quand j’y repense, il me semble que c’était hier, et pourtant, tant d’années ont passé, et j’m’en suis même pas aperçu », dit le texte vers la fin du film. Le commentaire de Pasolini instaure ainsi un jeu de réflexions entre la voix narrative et les ragazzi, jeu fait de proximité et de distance, d’identité – il fut l’un des leurs – et d’altérité – il ne l’est plus. Le texte déplace ainsi la fiction de La canta delle marane, en projetant les images dans un âge d’or révolu : âge d’or de l’enfance personnelle – les bords de l’Adige dans le Frioul, peut-être plus encore que la période des borgate romaines – mais aussi d’une Italie en train de disparaître, et que Pasolini cherchera ensuite dans le Sud, puis dans les pays du tiers-monde. »
“A real cathedral in the desert” is how Mangini described the newly built Monteshell petrochemical plant, the biggest in the country and the bureaucratic force that brings together the managers and workers – both current and former – put before the camera in Brindisi ’65. This cultural and economic disconnect is conveyed through images of young children fulfilling domestic duties in overpopulated living conditions, as a voice-over reads headlines from the national press announcing the factory’s arrival. Meanwhile, the managerial classes, who have moved South to exploit the region’s desperate work situation, celebrate away from public view, shot in such unflattering, grotesque close-ups that they take on a fisheyed distortion. There, they feast open-mouthed and exchange misogynistic and racist jokes about the local population. Later, a group of workers is asked to comment on their work situation. Only those who appear on the condition of anonymity will tell us what all of them seem to understand: that there are rewards for loyalty, that unionisation leads to forced isolation, and that the factory will always find another desperate worker to replace the dissenter (Daniella Shreir).
« Dans le cadre du documentaire, ces personnages voyagent aussi, en apprenant le rythme d’un plan séquence – un curieux intervalle, qui leur offre une autre façon de se raconter. Les femmes de la ville de Gravina di Puglia se déplacent dans un espace cinématographique, à l’aube, à travers les champs : le cinéma est une usine mais c’est aussi un jeu, il a du sens tant que les questions qu’il rend audibles ont du sens. Traverser des îles et des pays, du Vietnam à San Basilio – de chez soi on ne voit rien, rien n’est résolu, « on ne prend pas position ». « Pour être libre, je serai toujours une documentariste », car le documentaire permet « l’enquête des phénomènes complexes », voire une remise en question constante du système. On ne voyage pas pour accepter ni pour décrire, le cinéma du réel s’immerge dans le réel pour saboter, si nécessaire, cette réalité « complexe, tordue, avare de satisfactions » que Cecilia a rencontrée dans ces villages, la même qui appartient encore à tant de gens. »
“In Brindisi ’65, Mangini once again concerns herself with the modernisation of Italy, here focusing on the newly constructed Monteshell petrochemical plant. The film’s beginning intercuts images of Brindisi, a region once dominated by agriculture, with footage of a snake carved from stone, which comes to act as a portent of the seductive force of modernisation. Wide shots of geometric infrastructure depict the scale and alienation of the factory’s industrial facilities. In later scenes, Monteshell workers are gathered in a small room. Chronically underpaid yet cowed by necessity, they are reluctant to speak honestly about the conditions of work in the factory, aware that challenging the power structures would jeopardise their already precarious employment. Evidencing the scale of social stratification, Mangini contrasts this with scenes of Monteshell’s elites, as they gorge themselves on food and drink. The men pass sexist remarks between one another – ‘Have you ever eaten fruit that isn’t mature?’– while bemoaning rising labour costs. Mangini’s close up footage renders these characters cruel and buffoonish. Here, the present reviewer is reminded of Renée Falconetti as Jeanne de Arc – the antithesis to these creatures – in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Such intimate shots can both distort and exaggerate facial features, wordlessly conveying details about inner character. The juxtaposition of socio-political groups in Brindisi ‘65 recalls the opposition between Jeanne de Arc and her merciless jury.”
Boycotted and covertly censored by the producers and directors who formed part of the Commissione ministeriale, which decided on which short should accompany features in cinema programmes at the time, Essere Donne was a commission from the Communist-aligned production company Unitelefilm, who had approached a selection of left-wing filmmakers to investigate fully a collective social problem. The result is a series of interviews conducted by Mangini with women workers from the olive groves of Puglia to the factories of Milan. Often filmed as they work at home or at the factory, these women speak candidly about issues including abortion, housework, unionisation and boycotts (Daniella Shreir).
“As is always the case with works that constitute a powerful experience and discoveries of an existential nature, I remain very close to Essere donne. In this case, the experience was that of the factory, and within the factory the production line, the compartmentalisation, the short timescales, the confirmation of Gramsci’s teachings on Fordism. The discovery was that of the women ‘worked’ by the factory, of peasant work, of families, of their relationship to their hopeless situation, in the initial moment of their (and my) confused questioning of the need for change. [...] I discovered that women are restless, often openly dissatisfied with the existential burden that weighs upon them, and secretly driven to understand what is not working and how to free themselves of the endless penalties imposed on them since their childhood. A full awareness of the system that penalises them – its causes, its reasons – is still lacking. The women are unconsciously still only becoming complete women. This embryonic situation applies to me; it applies to all of us; it even applies to those who refuse to grow. It is undoubtedly down to hindsight and to a contemporary reading of Essere donne that I now believe that I was instinctively driven to identify myself with all of them – entering into the film as an olive-picker in Apulia or as a weaver at the loom in the north."
“Farete cinema e sapete benissimo che esistono cose che avete fatto alle quali siete enormemente affezionati e altre meno, è così. Essere donne è fra i miei lavori quello a cui tengo di più e sono maggiormente affezionata perché questo documentario è stato giudicato da quella che era la democrazia cristiana che aveva il terrore infimo di qualsiasi idea e scopo di sinistra così aveva inventato un meccanismo per arginare il problema. Siccome per la legge di allora il documentario veniva abbinato ai film, in quanto si pensava che uno spettacolo doveva essere fantasia, ma anche un richiamo alla realtà. Per il documentario esisteva una commissione di qualità la quale decideva se il documentario aveva le caratteristiche tecniche e artistiche per poter essere visto perché se era una cosa confusa, malfatta era inutile farla arrivare nelle sale e poi era necessario avere un visto di censura. La democrazia cristiana che negli anni Sessanta faceva il bello e il cattivo tempo ha deciso che le commissioni di censura e di qualità dovessero oltre a censurare dare un giudizio estetico sul documentario. Al tempo Essere donne non è stato censurato perché la censura ricorreva prepotentemente e i giornali schiamazzavano, le riviste di cinema protestavano, venivano inviate petizioni ai ministri e quindi per questo mi diedero il visto di censura. E dunque questo film, che era andato al festival di Lipsia, ed era stato visto da Joris Ivens, Paul Rotha e John Grierson le eccellenze di allora. Nomi che, forse oggi non dicono niente, ma che allora erano il meglio, hanno dato al mio film il premio della giuria, cosa che mi ha dato una felicità incredibile. Queste persone, alle quali io credevo moltissimo, hanno creduto in me.”
Cecilia Mangini in conversazione con Carolina Caterina Minguzzi2
Seven-year-old Fabio Spada is narrated into our awareness with pedestrian, bureaucratic details: the name of his parents, the exact location of his family’s cramped living situation in a tower block in the Roman suburbs, and this suburb’s transport connections. The film consists of interviews with the proverbial “village” involved in raising this child, who has been deemed a misfit by his school. Fabio’s father, propped up at a bar and raising a glass to the camera crew, recounts his sons’ misdeeds with amused detachment, including his attempted murder of the family’s pet fish a week earlier. His mother struggles to talk about her son as she changes her youngest child, the others causing havoc around her – and asks the film crew whether they’re going to edit out the chaos. A neighbour, meanwhile, notes Fabio’s lack of respect for his mother and fear of his father (Daniella Shreir).
“La Briglia sul Collo [The Bridle on the Neck] follows the schoolboy Fabio Spada, who has been labelled a misfit and a deviant by his small community. The film begins with an inventory of Fabio’s life: his father’s profession; the Roman suburb where he lives with his family; the lack of public parks in his area; the size and uniformity of the family flat; and the single transport connection between the suburb and the city. This is all vocalised over an extended shot of Fabio as he idly picks at the outside wall of his building. His body is pressed into a corner in the way that children often do when they have been dismissed or forgotten. Later in the film, Mangini interviews Fabio, as well as his parents, headmaster and neighbour, to formulate a nuanced portrait of a badly behaved and misunderstood child. Though never explicitly stated, the narrative suggests that Fabio’s lively temperament is a consequence of his highly constrained circumstances, indirectly criticising the society that raised him, rather than the boy himself. Although he pulls faces and sticks out his tongue at anyone who will dare lock eyes with him, the film proposes that within young, rebellious nonconformists lie potential social revolutionaries. Indeed, this aligns with the qualities we often ascribe to artists: speaking truth to power, rebelling against oppressive systems, truth-telling and revealing social ills that necessitate action. Mangini herself fits this archetype, as a film-maker who was regularly and systematically censored for her confrontational analysis of social issues.”
Shot in Martano, Stendalí is the record of a female mourning ritual – enacted within ethnic Greek communities that spoke Griko, a dialect that can still be found in southern Puglia – on the brink of extinction. When Mangini arrived in the town in 1960, she could find only two women who remembered fragments of the chants; they told her, “When we are gone, the lamentations will be gone, too.” Despite its observational style – albeit sped up in the edit, sometimes to comical effect – the film is in fact entirely reconstructed and restaged. Believing funeral chants to be one of the highest forms of poetry, Mangini entrusted Pasolini to work with the two women’s memories to create a Griko “replica” and to write a narrated script in Italian, voiced by actress Lilla Brignone. The addition of voice-over meant that Mangini didn’t have to choose between integrating Italian translation or subtitles, which she believed would disrupt the rhythm of the songs and the relationship between sound and image (Daniella Shreir).
« Un groupe de femmes vêtues de noir pleure un jeune défunt : la lamentation fait partie d’un rituel bien précis. Il s’agit de l’unique témoignage cinématographique de l’ancien rite, désormais disparu, du chant funèbre en griko, inspiré de la leçon du cinéma soviétique d’avant-garde et des œuvres de l’ethnologue Ernesto De Martino. Une « mise en scène » de la réalité à l’impact visuel et sonore extraordinaire, obtenu en ébranlant l’objectivité du plan fixe et en multipliant les points de vue et les détails. Le montage pressant accompagne l’intensité du rituel dans un crescendo tourbillonnant, entrelaçant les images, les paroles du commentaire signé par Pier Paolo Pasolini et l’extraordinaire bande originale composée par Egisto Macchi. Des visages comme des pierres, des gestes très anciens et l’exorcisme de la mort donnent vie à un tableau sans égal dans le cinéma documentaire contemporain. Ici, la forme visuelle baigne dans le rituel, prend son apparence, absorbe la charge émotionnelle du texte écrit par Pasolini. »
Gianluca Sciannameo: Are all the events in your documentaries staged? How much of what’s recorded on camera was still happening at the time? What elements did you choose to foreground in your cinematographic renditions of the ritualistic?
Cecilia Mangini: The events in Stendalì, La passione del grano and L'inceppata are all staged – or rather, re-staged, after much research and careful study, in which we foregrounded the elements of stylisation that are central to all rituals. Were those rituals still ongoing? Of all the Greek-speaking villages in Salento, mourning lamentations persisted only in Martano, as a tradition whose last repositories were the women we captured on film, playing themselves. The women were aware of this, so much so that they told me: ‘When we are gone, the lamentations will be gone, too.’ Whether they still practiced it? I’m not sure, but I imagine they would have as a last salute to Nunziata and Filomena, the oldest among them. The same goes for La passione and L’inceppata – although really an ethnologist should have the last word on these matters. The idea I got was that the elders in these communities would had been ‘defending themselves from the malignant threats of daily life’ by such things as performing lamentations, the sickle ritual, or the ritual of the engagement log. Their children would have witnessed these rituals often enough to memorise them before they disappeared, joining in only occasionally. Their grandchildren only had a vague, ghostly memory of them. Their great-grandchildren will have forgotten them entirely. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time of death of magic rituals. Its killers, however, are known: television, the social state and consumerism.
Cecilia Mangini in conversation with Gianluca Sciannameo2
“Mangini allows us to listen to voices as they show emotion and to see, up close, faces in both joy and pain. In many of her documentaries about the South and the quickly disappearing traditions found there, she collaborated with Pasolini, working together to build a tangible and unmistakable poetic. I cannot stop thinking about the fact that Pasolini wrote the lamentations we hear in Stendalì: suonano ancora (1960), another film on which they collaborated. He based the song, in Griko, a dialect of Greek spoken in Salento, off remnants the women featured in the film could remember, and which had been passed along through generations going back to the 1800s. And yet, while they may feel authentic to the outsider, these are reconstructions; in this film Mangini used a professional actress, Lilla Brignone, to lead the song. But still the women’s cries conjure up past traumas – the crying is part of traditional women’s ritual, the gendered work of mourning. Despite the documentary being staged, the cries from the mourners excavate something deep, powerful, intergenerational. Pasolini the poet and Mangini the image-maker tap into ancient traditions found not in the specifics of the language but in the manner in which the body produces such sounds. I think of Dante in ‘Canto XIII’ of La Vita Nuova, longing to be with Beatrice as she mourns the death of her father; he is told to go away, to stay outside of the house, ‘in keeping with the customs of the city mentioned earlier, women with women and men with men come together on such sad occasions, many women gathered where this Beatrice was weeping pitifully…’. Harnessing this ancient form, Mangini and Pasolini show us something that has always been a part of us.”
Allison Grimaldi Donahue3
- 1. Marina Mazzotti, « Stendali, » Tënk.
- 2. Gianluca Sciannameo, “An Interview with Cecilia Mangini,” Another Screen, 2021. Originally published in Nelle indie di Quaggiù. Ernesto de Martino e il cinema etnografico (Bari: Palomar, 2016). Translated from Italian by Livia Franchini.
- 3. Allison Grimaldi Donahue, “Finding the Real in the Magic: What Cecilia Mangini Gave Us,” Another Screen, 2021.