ROME — In December 1965, Cecilia Mangini joined her husband, Lino Del Fra, in North Vietnam to work on a movie about the war. Three months later, the United States-led bombing campaign got so bad that local officials ordered the couple to leave.
Determined to continue, they wrote a letter to the president of the communist state, Ho Chi Minh, asking to stay.
It is unclear whether he ever saw their plea, but in any case they left, reluctantly. She says the unfinished film remained “an open wound” for them.
“When I think that we could have made public what we saw,” she said, rather wistfully, on a recent January morning.
That open wound is partially healing because of “Due Scatole Dimenticate” (“Two Forgotten Boxes”), a documentary Ms. Mangini co-directed that is being presented at the International Film Festival Rotterdam this weekend.
Prompted by the rediscovery of two boxes of negatives in a cupboard in her apartment in Rome, the film intersperses some of the photographs and notes from that trip with more current musings on aging, as Ms. Mangini — widely credited as Italy’s first major female documentary filmmaker — creeps toward her 93rd birthday in July.
“I remember things through photographs, because I am losing my memory,” Ms. Mangini says in the documentary. “Sometimes I forget works, sometimes I forget dates, people’s names — you can’t remember everything.”
The photographs, she says, help her recover “time, space, emotions. Everything.”
Ms. Mangini made an immediate mark with her first documentary, “Ignoti alla Città” (“Unknown to the City”), a 1958 film about idle and disaffected youths in Rome’s postwar suburban sprawl. It was written by the gay, leftist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered in 1975. That made it suspect in the eyes of Italy’s censors, who eventually demanded she cut a scene in which young boys steal from a newspaper seller because it “instigated delinquency.” She appealed their decision and won.
“All this buzz, Pasolini, the delinquency charge. Without getting any prizes or acclamations, all that buzz was a springboard, above all a springboard for a woman who does cinema,” she recalled.
Pasolini wrote the scripts for two other documentaries that she directed: “La Canta delle Marane” (“The Blues of the Marshes”), which, like “Ignoti alla Città,” was inspired by Pasolini’s first novel, “Ragazzi di Vita” (“The Street Kids”); and “Stendalì” (1960), which refers to a funeral lament in Griko, the dialect of Greek spoken in an area of Puglia.
“I owe Pasolini a lot, both for the scripts and also because he was considered so dangerous — so frequenting him I was exposed to risks that were very useful to me,” she laughed.
From the start, Ms. Mangini’s films were overtly political and overtly left-leaning. “Essere Donne” (“Being Women”), her 1965 documentary about the condition of women in Italy, still feels fresh in its denunciation of discrimination, pay inequalities and the difficulties of reconciling a career with a family.
“San Lorenzo, Uomini e Case” (“San Lorenzo, Men and Houses”), a 1963 film directed by her husband and worked on by Ms. Mangini, illuminates the appalling living conditions of poor families in a central Rome neighborhood, where garbage piles up uncollected, as it does today.
She and Mr. Del Fra, who died in 1997, “worked together for a lifetime, in a completely osmotic relationship,” Ms. Zegna said. The documentation they entrusted to the Cineteca makes clear that even if one took credit for directing a film, the other was deeply involved, she said.
“Their discussions went on forever. They would rewrite a screenplay 12 times — the house really was a laboratory,” said Luca del Fra, their son, a journalist and press officer for the Culture Ministry. “A second of film is 25 frames. They could have long debates on removing five frames.”
They won the grand prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1977 for their movie about the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci. But arguably their best-known work is “All’armi, siam fascisti”(“To Arms, We’re Fascist,” the first line of a Fascist song), a critical and unflinching 1962 documentary that follows the rise and fall of fascism against the backdrop of the political upheavals in Europe in the first part of the 20th century, which they co-directed with Lino Miccichè. Censors blocked the film — the first about fascism since the liberation of Italy — for over a year.
Ms. Mangini was born in Mola di Bari, in the southern Italianregion of Puglia, in 1927. But her family moved to Florence when she was 6, after her father, a leather salesman, suffered financial setbacks. After high school and a short stint in college, she moved to Rome in 1952 and began working as the organizer of the Italian federation of film clubs. There she met and fell in love with Mr. Del Fra, who was also part of the association.
Immersed in the world of cinema, she began taking photographs, often on set. She also began writing, mostly for cinema magazines and books. One letter archived in Bologna includes the receipt of a check from the editor of the “Enciclopedia Cinematografica Conoscere” (a documentary-style visual encyclopedia created in the 1950s), for her contributions about “vitamins, the zodiac, and electric light bulbs,” Ms. Zegna said.
Though her parents were not fascist, as a child and young teenager, she embraced the fascist ideology propagated in Italian schools, if only because “girls were allowed to march on Saturdays,” an unheard-of liberty for women in 1930s Italy. “I felt as though I was treated like a man at a time when women were at home being mothers,” she recalled.
Her political affiliations later swung far to the left, though she and Mr. Del Fra were both strongly anti-Stalinist.
With few exceptions, documentary filmmakers have never had the same visibility as their commercial counterparts. In Italy, however, from the postwar years until the 1970s, by law 10-minute documentaries were shown before all feature films, which guaranteed that the genre was funded, if stingily, because the documentaries earned a small percentage of the film’s total box office.
“One of Cecilia’s complaints was that her documentaries were often affiliated with experimental films, so the proceeds were minor. She always battled to get tacked onto a box-office success,” said Marco Bertozzi, a historian of Italian documentaries.
Mr. Bertozzi said that in a patriarchal industry where women were either actresses or minor crew members, Ms. Mangini emerged as “the most famous female Italian documentary filmmaker” at the same time that the directors Liliana Cavani and Lina Wertmüller were beginning to make inroads. “It took time for women to be considered as producers or in creative roles,” he said.
Eventually, public funding for documentaries effectively dried up.
Over half of the projects detailed in the Mangini-Del Fra archives in Bologna were never carried out. “That says a lot about the state of documentary filmmaking,” Ms. Zegna said.
In 2005, Paolo Pisanelli, the co-director of her current movie, invited Ms. Mangini to the documentary film festival he directs in Puglia, where her sharp wit and engaging personality immediately made her a crowd favorite. She has been a guest ever since.
She and Mr. Pisanelli began traveling to film festivals around the world with her early films, which were restored and subtitled by his archive, and he has co-curated several exhibits of her photographs. They have been working on a joint project about the transformation of the image from analog to digital, and three years ago began collaborating on the Vietnam film, which first came out in a shorter version at the Rome film festival in 2018. “It took time for her to want to tell that story,” he said. “I had to be very headstrong.”
Ms. Mangini’s name recognition grew after she started appearing as a commentator on a political talk show. “As a guest she’s unique because she unites authoritativeness, lucidity, historical memory but also great charm and empathy,” said Giovanni Floris, the show’s host. “She has a brilliant take on things, and she part of the country’s cultural history,” which the show’s public respects, he said.