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Cardinal Spellman objected to the film and denounced it in print. Since the film had already passed the NY censorship board without objection, he put pressure on the owner of the Paris Theater to stop showing the film before he was able to get the censorship board to reverse itself.
The film's distributor, Joseph Burstyn, went to court to defend the film and the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling in 1952, decided the censorship board had violated the Constitution's separation of church and state clause and, furthermore, reversed its 1915 Mutual Film vs. Ohio ruling and determined that film was protected under the First Amendment.
This could be a gamble for Rossellini, putting so much faith in an actress to pull off two quite different roles (well, maybe not TOO different, there are some underlying qualities to both). Anna Magnani, however, was worth the gamble for him. This is proved right off the bat with 'Voice', where Magnani, for 75 percent of the film's running time, is in either medium-close up or close-up by Rossellini's elegant, probing (without seemingly to try) lens, as Magnani's character has a long, painful, and ultimately confessional conversation with her love who has left her. This is off the bat something that most can identify with; we know what it's like sometimes to be in a room and over-hear an outpouring of emotions through the walls (or sometimes ourselves talking in these conversations), practically wanting not to listen at all. But Cocteau understands that a conversation like this can be made into a kind of extraordinary poetry of sorts, by stripping away at the seams of the human soul (err, voice in this case), and aided by the right person to pull it off. Magnani, therefore, works because she conveys so much in her expressions, her eyes and of course voice, all without having to go into soap opera hysterics. Even towards the end of the film, where some of the momentum is lost, Magnani is like some force that you can't look away from.
This notion that Anna Magnani is in this overall project almost like her own vehicle, as Scorsese has said in his film My Voyage to Italy (which inspired me to seek this out to start with), it's un-thinkable to see anyone else play either of the two roles. This is especially so in 'The Miracle', different from anything else Rossellini had done up till that time (I could be wrong, I haven't seen anything he made pre Roma Citta Aperta) in that it takes place in a time unknown. It could be present day, or hundreds of years ago. It's a fable, with its story origins in a budding cartoonist, Fellini, who also appears here in his one and only acting role as a kind of Vagabond (and quite a suave looking one, ho-ho). Magnani plays the peasant woman, perhaps not altogether in her head, and believes as he passes by she has seen St. Joseph. She stops him, she praises and rambles, he offers her wine, and she passes out. Cut to another time in the future, and she discovers she's pregnant. Never had sex? Hmm...
The Miracle, a film that got in a heap of controversy, and in the process changed a vital point of how films were allowed to be shown in American cinemas from the 50's onward (a little historical fact few know of today), is to me perhaps one of the most powerful 'fables' I've ever seen, at least from people like Rossellini and Fellini (the later made a great career out of fashioning them out of almost nothing). It is also a very telling story about religion and faith, and to my way of thinking still holds a relevance just as meaningful today as back in the later 40's and early 50's. The peasant woman turned homeless that Magnani plays so beautifully (for such a simple character there is enough nuance for two performances) holds onto faith because, frankly, it's all that she has. She gets berated by all the townsfolk- particularly the religious folk for having a child out of wedlock and under such strange circumstances- yet nothing gets in the way of her own determination of what she thinks is true.
Even if you don't have a belief in Catholicism or even just religion, the film has an impact because of elemental questions Rossellini is trying to raise. I can't say what they are here, as they will bring different answers for the individual viewer. But the fact that Fellini and Rossellini are stirring up such thoughts among such touching and near-perfect acting and stylizing (there's even a slight touch of humor in the early scenes with Fellini) and not forcing them on the viewer, not to sound catchy about it, is a miracle in and of itself, and one of the director's best films taking into account the two as L'Amore... Be advised though- as of now this film is EXTREMELY hard to find, and only after many months and more money than I'd care to say I discovered a copy on video, so only if you feel a strong urge to see the film (likely, as with myself, from having seen the clips from My Voyage to Italy) would I recommend it. But if you do, it could serve a very rewarding experience.
In the second part she is the deluded peasant seduced, and made pregnant, by none other than Federico Fellini , (who co-wrote the script with Rossellini and Tullio Pinelli). Magnani believes her seducer to be St Jospeh and the baby she is carrying to be some sort of new Messiah, (it was this that so offended the powers that be). Again she is magnificent, (Rossellini dedicated the film 'to the art of Anna Magnani"), in a role totally different from the part she plays in "The Human Voice". It is easy to see how this second part could be released separately from the first, (they are very different in tone), and this small masterpiece is as great a 'short' film as the cinema has given us. Nevertheless, seeing both parts together is testament to the genius of both director and star. Essential.
What a surprise to meet an Italian screen star who isn't beautiful. But that just makes this plain artist more believable.
In the first segment of this amazing film, Magnani's unnamed character embodies the suffering human heart. At first, as a woman who has lost her love, Magnani tries to put on a brave face. But soon she reveals her naked agony and grief.
Magnani's character embodies the emotional human being here, yet simultaneously captures the realist. She knows her relationship with this unseen man -- who already has moved on to someone else -- is over. But she does not ask how this can be, or in any other way pursue self-delusion (though on a perceptual level she betrays hope in the form of wished-for car-door closings and hallway footfalls). To borrow from John Donne, ask not who this tearful woman is -- she is thee.
Has anyone ever looked into your soul and understood you on a primitively raw level yet been unable to change anything? If you have loved and suffered, see "L'Amore" and allow Rossellini to bear witness for you.
The second part of the film takes up the aloneness theme in a different way. Here Magnana plays Nanni, a woman who may be mentally retarded -- or maybe more intelligent and enlightened than anyone else. For Nanni, the spiritual is more real than the workaday. God loves her, and saints not only appear in the flesh but sit, and listen, and break bread, and share wine.
A man anyone else would interpret as an opportunistic cad (the blond Frederico Fellini in a rare acting role), Nanni views as the source of an immaculate conception.
She pities the callous fools in her town -- "they know not what they do" -- and must suffer the pangs of childbirth entirely on her own, sprawled on the floor of a grotto. In the end, she comes to terms with the implacable solitariness of life in offering her breast to her newborn.
One wishes her, and every one of us, well.