Cecilia Mangini: To Be a Documentary Filmmaker
Cecilia Mangini (Mola di Bari, 31 July 1927 – Rome, 21 January 2021) was the first Italian woman with the audacity to step behind the camera to document the socio-political transformations of post–World War II. A photographer, essayist, and filmmaker, she dedicated her whole life to militant cinema, an adjective – she used to say – “that today sounds like a profanity”.
Speaking of profanities, she told me1 that while shooting her fourth documentary, La canta delle marane [The Marshes’ Chant] (1962), her greatest trouble was handling the group of children and teenagers from the Roman suburbs she had chosen to film. They were never there when the production minivan came to gather them, so a lot of time was always spent in looking for them among the big concrete buildings. One day, exasperated, she let a dirty word slip out of her mouth. The kids were flabbergasted: “Look at that! A woman swearing like men do!” Cecilia never forgot their open mouths and their amazed faces. Swearing, at the time, was almost unconceivable for a woman. And, on top of that, for a woman who also wore trousers!
To understand the relevance of this story, we have to put it in context. Italy in the 1950s was a very poor nation with a high level of illiteracy. Women had just gained the right to vote2 , but they still lived in a Catholic and extremely conservative society that had not freed itself from the heavy cultural inheritance of the past fascist regime. The following decade, with its economic boom, while ensuring a widespread affluence, had relegated to a dark zone the sons and daughters of those who had fought the war and had hoped for social redemption. Invisible to the eyes of the state, they had been marginalized in the outskirts of the big urban centers or regimented in the assembly-lines of the industries.
Cecilia Mangini moved to Rome in 1952. Thanks to her job as a programmer for FICC (Federazione Italiana Circoli del Cinema, i.e., the Italian Film Clubs Federation) and as a freelance photographer and journalist for various magazines3 , she was in touch with writers, screenwriters, directors and producers. One of these, Fulvio Lucisano, proposed that she make a documentary.
Mangini had seen the working-class suburbs while touring the still unpaved streets connecting Rome with its outskirts, together with Lino Del Fra4 in their FIAT 500 called “polverosa” (dusty). She had read and loved the outrageous novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ragazzi di vita [The Street Kids].5 Now she was quite ready to step behind the camera.
Thus were born Ignoti alla città [Unknown to the City] (1958), Stendalì: suonano ancora [Here They Play Again] (1960) and La canta delle marane, all with commentary6 written by Pier Paolo Pasolini. In little more than ten minutes those documentaries recounted what the Italian post-war society didn’t want to show.
La canta delle marane is the fitting continuation of Ignoti alla città. In her debut film Mangini follows the “ragazzi di vita” in their daily wanderings, she shows where they live, how they have fun, what they eat, what they wear. She introduces them to the world, makes a sketch of them. In her second film she shows their soul: they are fallen angels but still angels. Pier Paolo Pasolini abandons the third person and the Italian language used in Ignoti alla città and becomes the voice of one of those boys.7 As a grown-up he remembers, with poignant nostalgia and using the Roman dialect, the happiness of those wild and scorching days spent bathing in those small streams called marane.
Young people, those who should represent the future of the country, are among Mangini’s favorite subjects: Ignoti alla città, La canta delle marane, Tommaso (1965), La briglia sul collo [The Bridle on the Neck] (1972). Then her attention turns from the outskirts of Rome – already a symbol of all the suburbs of any big city – to southern Italy, to the century-old stagnation of the rural culture (Maria e i giorni [Maria and the Days] (1960)) where pre-Christian rituals were still performed as a way of honouring the dead and comforting the living (Stendalì).
There is a common thread that ties such apparently different subjects: unveiling what the so-called modern society keeps hidden and giving a face and a voice to those living on the margins.
Stendalì: suonano ancora is a perfect example of aural and visual balance. The hypnotic rhythm of the Soviet-style editing, punctuated by Egisto Macchi’s musical inserts,8 is enhanced by the dramatic voice of the funeral lament. Mangini returns to her homeland – Apulia – to film a ritual that arguably dates back to the time when there were Greek colonies in Salento: the funeral lament in Griko dialect.9 The documentary doesn’t show an actual funeral. It would have been impossible with the technical equipment available at the time. So the ritual was re-enacted. The women involved were professional mourners. They were so committed to their role that they were able to dub themselves in post-production. Pasolini provided a commentary that is a brilliant assembly of the texts of four different songs that the poet knew well since he had collected them in his own massive anthology of popular Italian poems published in 1955 under the title of Canzoniere italiano.
Mangini’s interest in Southern Italy is not limited to the ethnographic approach. In the mid-1960s she returned in Apulia to evaluate the social costs of Italy’s largest petrochemical plant built in Brindisi, a city whose economy was, until a few years earlier, predominantly based on agriculture. Tommaso is the story of a boy who wants to be hired by the big plant in order to buy a motorcycle. Brindisi ’65 (1966) is a more structured report on the workers of Monteshell Petrolchimica.
Both documentaries question the meaning of words such as “progress” or “affluence” at the time of the economic boom and the emerging consumer society.
The same principles inform the documentary Essere donne [Being Women] (1965). This time the focus is on the female labour status, seen from north to south and in every aspect: women working in factories, in fields or at home with the addition of the usual chores of running the house and looking after children and husbands. Mangini renders the abysmal distance between women’s everyday lives and the way society represents them with an opening sequence in which she alternates colourful advertising photos of women, taken from fashion and news magazines, with stock images of nuclear bomb explosions.
Throughout her documentaries there is a strong libertarian and anarchist tension. Mangini points an accusing finger at social homologation and the overwhelming power of the big business, while opposing to that an alternative interpretation of reality. That’s why censorship hit her in many devious and hypocritical ways. Giorgio Patara, producer of Tommaso and Brindisi ’65, fearing lawsuits from Monteshell, not only omitted his own name in the credits, but also refrained from requesting the nulla osta (authorization) for the distribution to the appointed ministerial commission.10
Even more relevant is the case of Essere donne. Commissioned by the Italian Communist Party before the political elections in the spring of 1964, the film obtained the censorship visa, but was denied the National Film Quality Award which meant that the producer lost any state funding and the film was excluded from the compulsory programming – in other words, commercial death for a documentary.
Despite that, Essere donne – which won the special jury prize at the Leipzig Festival in 196511 – is Mangini’s most widely seen film internationally. In Italy it was regularly screened on special commemorative days, such as Liberation Day (25 April) or International Women’s Day (8 March), and at many left-wing social gatherings.
Cecilia Mangini has gone elsewhere. She used to tell me that “the world is for those who want it”. Pasolini was very dear to her, almost a family member, since family is what you choose, not what you have to put up with. Like Pasolini, she had elected to embrace the world in its entirety, and to love it till the end.
- 1Interview by Céline Ruivo and myself with Cecilia Mangini, September 2019.
- 2In Italy, the Council of Ministers granted women the right to vote and stand for election on 30 January 1945. The first consultations with universal suffrage were the local elections of 10 March 1946.
- 3Between 1952 and 1958 Mangini contributed articles and photos to Cinema nuovo, Araldo del Cinema e dello Spettacolo and the periodical Rotosei.
- 4Lino Del Fra (Rome, June 20, 1929 – Rome, July 20, 1997), screenwriter and documentarist, was Cecilia Mangini’s life partner.
- 5The book was published by Garzanti in 1955. Three months later Pasolini and Garzanti were sent to trial for obscenity. It was the Presidency of the Council of Ministers that had brought a court action against the novel. The prosecutor asked for the acquittal of the defendants. The request was granted by the judges in full.
- 6In the aftermath of World War II, when outdoor shooting began in Italy, the cameras were making so much noise that it was extremely difficult to get a clean live sound recording. For this reason, in the 1950s, the sound of documentaries was post-synchronized; that is, it was created subsequent to the filming and could only comment on the images.
- 7A.-V. Houcke, Affinités électives entre Cecilia Mangini et Pier Paolo Pasolini, in Trafic (Spring 2014).
- 8Active on the front of instrumental, vocal and theatrical composition and the creation of soundtracks for film and television, Macchi (1928 – 1992) was one of the most representative figures of the Italian musical avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century.
- 9The origin of Griko, or Grico, is still debated today. It is a dialect in which Byzantine Greek and Salento dialect, a characteristic speech of the province of Lecce, are mixed. Some scholars date it to Magna Graecia, while others place it between the 13th and 14th centuries.
- 10Interview by Andrea Meneghelli and myself with Cecilia Mangini, 2014. To unlock the two documentaries, in agreement with Patara, Mangini pretended to be the producer as well, thus challenging the Monteshell behemoth.
- 11The jury consisted of Joris Ivens, Paul Rotha and John Grierson.
Image (1) from La canta delle marane [The Marshes’ Chant] (Cecilia Mangini, 1962)
Image (2) from Stendalì: suonano ancora [Here They Play Again] (Cecilia Mangini, 1960)
Image (3) from La briglia sul collo [The Bridle on the Neck] (1972)
Image (4) from Essere donne [Being Women] (1965)
Milestones: Cecilia Mangini takes place on Thursday 10 November 2022 at 20:30 in Beursschouwburg, Brussels. You can find more information on the event here.