Pioneer Italian documentary director Cecilia Mangini, whose political works exploring hot-button topics such as youth contending with Italy’s postwar poverty, the condition of women, and the roots of fascism made her a legendary figure on the international film festival circuit, died on Jan. 21. She was 93.
Mangini made her mark from her very first work, 1958 feature “Ignoti alla città” (Unknown to the City), about kids in Rome’s slums, which was written by gay, leftist poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, with whom Mangini subsequently collaborated on other docs.
“Unknown to the City,” which drew from Pasolini’s first novel “Ragazzi di Vita” (“The Street Kids”), was initially blocked by Italy’s censors who objected to a scene in which young boys steal from a newspaper seller because they claimed it could lead to similar delinquency. Mangini appealed the censors’ decision and won.
“All this buzz, Pasolini, the delinquency charge,” Mangini recalled in a 2020 New York Times interview, “was above all a springboard for a woman who does cinema.”
Mangini went on to make two other documentaries scripted by Pasolini, “La canta delle marane” (The Blues of the Marshes) and the 1960 “Stendalì,” about a funeral lamentation sung by women in an ancient dialect derived from Greek spoken in an area of Puglia, the Southern Italian region where she was born.
Born in 1927 in Mola di Bari, Mangini and her family moved north to Florence when she was six, after her father’s leather goods business suffered financially. She then moved to Rome in 1952 and started working as an organizer in a film club federation where she met her future husband Lino Del Fra, with whom she eventually also formed a strong creative bond.
They co-wrote and directed several works including “All’armi, siam fascisti” (To Arms, We’re Fascists). This 1962 doc chronicling the rise of fascism and its collusion with Italy’s captains of industry and the Catholic Church was blocked by Italian censors before screening at the Venice Film Festival where it made a splash.
In 1965, Mangini directed “Essere donne” (Being Women) in which she denounced discrimination, pay inequalities and the huge challenges Italian women faced in trying to reconcile a career with a family. The same year, she and Del Fra went to North Vietnam to work on a documentary about the Vietnam War, which they left unfinished since they were forced to flee U.S.-led bombing.
Materials from their Vietnam project were resurrected more than 50 years later in Mangini’s doc “Two Forgotten Boxes,” which screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2020 and was her final work, preceded in 2013 by “In viaggio con Cecilia,” about ecological ravages in Puglia, co-directed with Mariangela Barbanente.
Mangini and Del Fra’s “Antonio Gramsci — I giorni del carcere,” about Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, won the Grand Prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1977.
The Italian and international film community are paying warm tribute to Mangini. “She was the first Italian woman to become important and esteemed internationally working in a genre [documentaries] that had until then been eminently masculine,” wrote “Corriere della Sera” critic Paolo Mereghetti.
“Cecilia Mangini was responsible for the initial work of rediscovering the [postwar] Italian territory, with its jumble of beliefs, traditions and superstitions, but also the discovery of an underclass torn from the countryside but not allowed into the cities during the so-called economic boom,” wrote Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Giona Nazzaro in an effusive post on the Swiss festival’s website.
“They were unknown to the city, in fact, just like the title of her [first] film “Ignoti alla città,” he went on to note.
A non-religious memorial commemoration was held on Monday in Rome at the Fondazione Archivio Audiovisivo del Movimento Operaio e Democratico, the film archives of Italy’s labor movement.