By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/13/22 – The Motion Picture Academy Museum in Los Angeles has been offering a retrospective of the little-known works of Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini, who recently passed at the age of 93 in 2021. Her films are hard to find but she was the first woman to make documentaries in post-war Italy. She has a distinctive body of work in documentary filmmaking and photography and was known for her collaborations with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some of her films are now available online but only after the feminist film magazine Another Gaze mounted a retrospective of her work in 2021. Her films are rare in their form, which combines a poetic sensibility with an anthropological study of Mangini’s own Italy and its people. Screening on Saturday, March 12, was her 30-minute film Being Women (Essere Donne, Italy, 1965), an emblematic work that anticipates the feminist movement, in the simple but radical gesture of contrast between the advertising images of women and real women: workers, mothers, who struggle to make ends meet. The film gives voice to working-class women, in a pre-feminist experimental film that shows the unavoidable contribution made by women to politics and social justice.
Mangini’s unwavering political commitment to these Italian people, especially workers. (Mangini’s camera captured the position of, as film writer and programmer Daniela Persico wrote, “the outcasts of modernity.”) While many become cynical with age, in her 90s Mangini was still interested in picking up a camera (with the help of co-directors decades younger than she) to keep exploring, agitating, questioning, and creating. This selection of her films invites audiences to do the same. The documentary Being Woman (Essere Donne) screened along with a feature-length documentary The World in Shots (Il Monde a scatti, 2021), which she made with her friend and fellow filmmaker Paolo Pisanelli. Her work with Pisanelli is remininescent of the final work of French filmmaker Agnès Varda with JR in Faces Places (2017).
Mangini’s own words provide the best explanation of her range of work and her approach to filmmaking: “As is always the case with works that constituted a powerful experience and a discovery 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 compartmentalization, 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 50s and 60s, the factory was a hot – sometimes red-hot – topic at the heart of the concerns, diagnoses and prophecies of leftwing culture. Entering a factory with my much-loved Arryflex was my dream, and it couldn’t have been more remote, or more forbidden.”
Providing more commentary on her earlier film, Mangini continued: “Finally, the opportunity came in the spring of 1964. For the elections, Unitelefilm asked Italian leftwing filmmakers to investigate fully a collective, social problem, rather than simply and uselessly trumpeting Communist Party propaganda. For the section on women’s work, they called me in via delle Botteghe Oscure. Everywhere, in both the north and the south, I met women convinced that they would be saved by the economic independence they were seeking. I, too, believed it. I, too, clung to this simple, linear, consolatory conviction. However, reality is complex, convoluted and offers little satisfaction. For the first time my “look around, listen, think” ran up against the “look around, listen, think” of other women. 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 penalizes them – its causes, its reasons – is still lacking. The women are unconsciously still only becoming complete women.”
The World in Shots (Il Mondo a scatti, 2021) includes documentary footage of Cecilia discussing film with the phenomenal Agnès Varda in an unforgettable meeting of two great women at the 2011 “Cinema del Reale festival”. It was the first time they met and they both spoke about the essence of documentary film. Losing two of our finest women behind the camera within the space of two years is a real blow, yet they leave a magnificent legacy of images and work. The World in Shots is a superb tribute to Mangini. Pisanelli provides kinesis to her stills. Old passports, photographs, programs, and artifacts kept in her spacious apartment in Rome. In fact, it is a living archive, with Mangini telling us the background to her work. There is footage of a trip she made to Iran at the 36th Fajr International Film Festival in 2018, where she is discussing her work with young Iranian filmmakers, as well as footage from the Créteil Films de Femmes Festival in Paris, which had a retrospective of her work as guest of honor and a special public event hosted with festival director Jackie Buet. A jubilant Mangini entertained the public with her experiences as a photographer in this face-to-face meeting.
Cecilia Mangini was in Vietnam off and on from 1945 to 1965 and photographed the people, cities, and villages, images that were intended for a film to be made with her husband, filmmaker Lino Del Fra. She eventually used them in the documentary Due scatole dimenticate (Two Forgotten Boxes, Italy 2020). Clips of Mangini’s most famous collaborative films are shown in The World of Shots including Two Forgotten Boxes—films that made her an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker. All’armi, siam fascisti (To Arms We’re Fascists 1962) with Lino del Fra and Lino Miccichè, is a montage of archival footage on the development of fascism in Italy by Benito Mussolini from 1919.
From after his death there is footage from her first documentary, which was co-written with the famous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini—Ignoti alla città (Unknown to the City” 1958) on adolescent boys in Rome’s suburbs where he would later be murdered in 1975. Scenes from Stendalì: Suonano ancora (Stendalì: Still They Toil, 1960) concern female Sicilian funeral rites with text by Pasolini. This poignant film shows women grieving and chanting lamentations in an ancient Greek dialect, since Sicily was once colonized by Greece. Their physical movements in mourning, their swaying with raised hands and small leaps are visceral and kinetic, which Mangini was so adept at assembling.
Mangini is frequently seen in A World of Shots with camera in hand, whether demonstrating with her fist raised on the streets of Rome for a march, watching the people outside the Beaubourg in Paris, or admiring art in museums. The camera was an intrinsic part of her, and these shots reveal her love of the world and the people who inhabit it. In a collage of Mangini’s work at the end of the film, we are reminded of what an extraordinary artist she was and how we will miss her images, the ones she continued to make at the age of 94. The film ends with the famous portrait of Italian workers, Faces, that she took in 1966 in Puglia. It is a close inspection of the men and their faces, still haunting after nearly fifty years. It is photoshopped so all are wearing pink masks in today’s pandemic. This powerful image is on the website for the “Cinema del Reale” festival. Mangini was always looking for what was real and captured what she felt was compelling in the world about her. She did it to enrich our lives and expand our vision of the world she saw through the lens of her camera.