Postwar; Pietralata, an impoverished neighborhood in Rome. Angelina and Pasquale Bianchi, a cop, and their five children, including a baby, live in a flimsy, unadorned tenement “flat.” Off-limits for their and their neighbors’ residency: newly built apartments intended to serve Italy’s future. Luigi Zampa’s engrossing, biting L’onorevole Angelina (The Honorable Angelina) takes on a topic not far removed from “ethnic cleansing”: social cleansing. Although “vouchers” are available to minimally feed the poor, Italy is apparently willing to sacrifice and discard even the hardworking poor for the sake of its postwar recovery.
Generically, one would characterize Zampa’s fine film as a satirical comedy-drama tackling postwar Italy’s social injustice and political corruption. In its course, wife and mother Angelina—fluently and brilliantly played by Anna Magnani (best actress, Venice, and Italy’s critics)—evolves into a grassroots community organizer and leader, thus filling a necessary role that she had never envisioned for herself. Indeed, the film is sharp, astute and funny in spots; but its melancholy opening establishes a more complex tone than this suggests. The camera pans rightward, revealing a gray, forlorn, flat, vacant landscape at dawn; this shot, however, segues into a subjective shot from the front window of a moving public transportation vehicle, with the back of the driver’s head bobbing into the frame. In turn, this segues into another panning shot, this time, leftward. The editing helps conjure the appearance that the camera easily penetrates the Bianchis’ flat, establishing a sense of vulnerability, to wit, that “inside” provides little protection from the “outside.” (Later, the Bianchis and their neighbors will be forced to evacuate their homes due to flooding.) As the camera proceeds screen-left, it glimpses sleeping children and finally arrives at Angelina and Pasquale’s bed. Angelina is not asleep; she draws Pasquale into her intense worry about how they are going to feed the children. Pasquale says he will ask for “another” advance on his salary. One would not guess that a “comedy” of any sort had just begun.
Eventually, Angelina is falsely discredited and even imprisoned; finally, she refuses the parliamentary seat to which she was elected as (as she puts it) “the representative of the poor,” explaining, “I love my kids.” She will be a full-time housewife and mother again, assuring her fans and neighbors that her activism lies in wait until they call upon it again: for us, an irresolute resolution. But this is a comedy after all. The closing shot, a partial reversal of the opening shot into Angelina and Pasquale’s bedroom, nearly implies an undoing of all we have seen, as if it has been a kind of dream.
The script is by Zampa, Piero Tellini, Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Magnani herself.
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