A chance to catch eight shorts by documentary pioneer and poet Cecilia Mangini

The late Italian filmmaker, a collaborator with Pier Paolo Pasolini and others, found gloriously poetic form for her subversive politics.

Cecilia Mangini presenting All’armi, siam fascisti! at the Venice Film Festival in 1963

▶︎ A One-Woman Confessional: Eight Films by Cecilia Mangini is streaming for free until 22 March 2021 on Another Screen, a new, irregular streaming platform provided by the non-profit feminist film journal Another Gaze. Please consider supporting them.

Cecilia Mangini was a gifted artist, and a key figure in Italian documentary cinema, but like many other wayfarers her work has not been too widely seen. There is a potential remedy, as the feminist film journal Another Gaze have christened their new streaming service Another Screen with a freely and internationally available programme of her work.

Mangini was born in 1927 and died just a few weeks ago, in January 2021 at the age of 93. There are many ways of looking at and presenting her long life and diverse directorial output, which began in the late 1950s before stopping in the mid-1970s, when the flow of public funding for documentaries was dammed by the government – the latest in a line of attempts to censor her work. (Her 1965 Essere donne (Being Women), backed by Italy’s Communist Party, was removed from cinemas on the grounds of technical and artistic deficiency.) She would remain a filmmaker in other capacities, and a public figure, eventually returning to directing in the 2010s with a series of films co-directed with Piero Panseili. 

Even before then her filmmaking was, in many forms, a collective operation. She worked closely and frequently with her creative and life partner, Lino Del Fra: they co-directed a feature film, All’armi, siam fascisti! (1962), and she also worked on many of Del Fra’s own shorts and later features. Cinematographer Giuseppe De Mitri and editor Renato May were her frequent collaborators; so too was the great Pier Paolo Pasolini, his script work for Mangini preceding and running parallel with his first films as a director. One particular collaboration, La Canta delle Marane (1962), is a wonderfully loamy exhortation of youthful peacocking and rebellion, reminiscent of Pasolini’s debut novel Ragazzi di vita (1955).

Out of this variety, the programmers at Another Screen have focused in on eight shorts from 1960 to 1974. All bear her mark as a solo director and find her habitually drawn to certain subjects and locales: the systemised hardships of wage slavery; the raw experience of childhood; and life and rituals in various isolated and impoverished communities, often tied to the Apulia region, Italy’s heel, where Mangini was born.

Mangini had the precise mind of a statistician but also a poetically expressive kino-eye. Though her work has its undeniable didactic and anthropological elements, both sharply informed by a Marxist point of view, she does not fit in with those in militant cinema who see form as mere function, nor with many near-contemporaries in ‘direct cinema’ for whom reality was a holistic, apolitical and containable entity. Rather, these films summon the ghosts of Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov in their reconstructing of reality and radical form.

Stendalì: Suonano ancora (1960) documents the musical rites of a funeral and wake for a 16-year-old boy in the Greek-speaking village of Martano. In this sacrosanct den of grief – a cottage full of black clad mourners with the coffin open at the centre and women surrounding it – Mangini latches onto their slow winding, swaying and keening. As their singing starts to accelerate, the bass-percussion score and the cutting keep apace, the camera switching between a more distant position, the corpse’s point of view and intimate portraits of the singers. Eventually both singing and montage hit a crescendo, and the collective sorrow arrives at a cataclysmic but ultimately cleansing state.

More often Mangini documents people disenchanted, in chains. Essere donne also contains some very distinctive moments of stylisation – the relentless monotony of a factory encapsulated in the repetitive use of jump cuts, speed changes and reversals of footage. But it’s more ambitious and far-reaching than the mostly single-room Stendalì, travelling across Italy to stitch a polyvocal portrait of working-class women’s labour – which generally entails long, back-breaking workdays that begin at home, continue on the factory floor and start up at home again, not to mention alienation in the wider political sphere.

In the Brindisi-set Tommaso (1965), Mangini uses the eponymous subject, a wayward teenager, as the basis for an exposition of city-wide oppression. The nub of the film is a recurring image of Tommaso speeding around on his father’s motorcycle, his thoughts verbalised through voiceover and stuck on the desire for a well-paying job at the local petrochemical plant.

Around this orbit a ring of counterpoints: interviews with plant workers who quickly found themselves in short-changing, dead-end positions, and a report of one who died in a suspicious accident. Tommaso, with his desperate plea for employment, is at the outset of a life of capitalist exploitation; the dead man’s mother, excoriating the soundtrack with her howls of grief, is an all-too-common endpoint.

The latest film in this series, and her last for many years, La Briglia sul Collo (The Bridle Around the Neck, 1974) is, on the face of it, the most conventional of the bunch, in both its style – more straight interviews than poetics – and its subject, a socially deprived ‘problem child’. His name is Fabio, a pre-teen who is causing trouble both at home and at school. The film is made up of individual interviews with Fabio and the adults who have to handle him, including his smirking barfly of a father, his overwhelmed mother and his doll-collecting ‘school manager’, whose mien is closer to a crooked wheeler-dealer than a professional educator.

As the film progresses, the charismatic Fabio, with his constant mugging, joking and little ditties, begins to dominate over the more ‘neutral’ point of view. Aided and abetted by Mangini’s cutting, his sniping runs rings around these staid or conceited adults. By the end, the state of things is laid unusually bare. The boy is an unpredictable, subversive element, and so must be tamped and controlled for the sake of the status quo.

Mangini was like Fabio, a dissident – her cinema a riposte against the status quo, in support of the neglected and the downtrodden.

Watch an interview with Cecilia Mangini at the 2019 Viennale

Further reading