Category: Italy

Silvana ManganoAged 18, she was post-war Italy’s (and probably Europe’s) first international post-war pin-up – ‘the Rage of the Continent’ as one British headline put it.  She was often described as the Italian Rita Hayworth – ‘the Rita Hayworth of the Italian periphery’ as director Giuseppe De Santis put it (or perhaps we might say, Rita Hayworth with underarm hair).  Italo Calvino described her as ‘the most beautiful girl I have ever seen … she has the face and hair of Botticelli’s Venus’.  Her career ranged from Neo-Realism to Melodrama to Commedia all’Italianna (forming a particularly enduring partnership with Alberto Sordi) to arthouse (Pasolini and Visconti gave her a new international profile in the late 60s/early 70s).  She was married to arguably the most famous (and controversial) Italian film producer of all time.  And yet Silvana Mangano has been overshadowed by the meteoric success of Sophia Loren that she partly paved the way for.  Like Gina Lollobrigida (Loren’s nearest rival), Mangano and Loren had first taken part in beauty pageants (Silvana was the first Miss Roma), both part of a generation of female stars termed the maggoriate fisiche (physically well endowed).  Even in Italy, where DVD stores have sections devoted to Loren, Anna Magnani, Totò or Alberto Sordi, Silvana doesn’t seem to have been remembered in quite the same way.

Bitter Rice 1

English language accounts can never quite get past her thighs (where Italian accounts are as likely to talk about her lips – the most beautiful in film history according to Federico Rocca).  According to David Thomson, ‘the gap between Italian neorealism and the striving after international markets … is straddled by the magnificent thighs of the teenage Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice‘.  Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1948) grafted raw glamour onto Neo-Realism and almost singlehandedly created the international market for Italian films.  While she had played small roles off the back of her Miss Roma victory, the film has the feel of a debut by presenting her so unforgettably as the voluptuous rice picker in tight shorts and torn stockings, the working class Italian girl seduced by dreams of America; chewing gum, dancing to Boogie-Woogie on the record player she carries with her, reading the glossy fotoromanzi in Grand Hotel.  She embodied a female sexuality not seen on screen before, owing as much to Anna Magnani as the voluptuous divas who would follow her – in the words of Giovanna Grignaffini, ‘a creature of the earth, rich with joyous sensuality, generous in its proportions, warm and familiar: a body-landscape’.

Bitter Rice 2

Just how big was BItter Rice internationally?  It had a three month run in New York.  In the UK the subtitled version played in the West End for eighteen weeks, seen by 100,000 people – they were allegedly turning away 400 people every night. It even played some of the provinces (almost unheard of for a subtitled film) – it made more money in Leeds than any film to that date.  Then came the dubbed version, which was even bigger.  The early 50s was the peak of her international stardom – when Il Brigante Musolino (Mario Camerini 1950) was released as Outlaw Girl it went out with the tagline ‘Don’t tangle with Mangano!’  Given how many people owned the Bitter Rice pin-up, tangling with her was exactly what they were dreaming of.


But by 1951 she had shed this image, slimming down dramatically  – by the time of her dual role in Camerini’s Ulisse/Ulysses (1952) as both Penelope and Circe, she had taken on a decidely ethereal quality (but could still summon a different kind of ‘earthiness’ when needed – she played prostitutes in both L’oro di Napoli and La Grande Guerra). The new slender Silvana is first seen in Alberto Lattuada’s Anna (1951), a film that might seem less epochal than BItter Rice but was in many ways just as successful and important.  In Italy, it was the first film ever to earn more than a billion lire, and it would be a huge international success (even though it is currently unavailable with English subtitles).  Mangano had a Sicilian father and English mother – some accounts use some slightly stereotypical notions of national character to explain the mixture of sensuality and reserve that seem to underpin her screen persona.  Even Teorema/Theorem (1968) – always seen as an auteur film (auteurs don’t come much more auteurist than Pasolini) – can be seen as a star vehicle in playing out this tension.  Playing the bourgeois mother compelled to pick up young men on the streets of Milan, her response to the angelic seducer played by Terence Stamp is not so very different to the respectable girls she played earlier in her career who can’t resist the dissolute charms of Vittorio Gassman.  In Anna, she plays a nun in a Milan hospital who has yet to take her final vows – she is propelled into flashblack by the arrival of an injured Raf Vallone, a flashback that begins with the most widely seen sequence from the film, her unforgettable performance of ‘El Negro Zumbon’ in a nightclub (watch this clip on YouTube and you’d need to be clairvoyant to guess what the rest of the film might be about).  Pre-veil Anna wants to commit to nice guy Raf but can’t say no to louche Gassman (both men are pretty much reprising their roles from Bitter Rice) – he has an extraordinary bachelor pad (considering he’s a bartender) with a nude painting over the bed.  The body cannot be denied and something keeps drawing her back into Gassman’s bed, and so the film presents her with a stark choice – an ‘immoral’ and unhappy existence submitting to carnal desire or complete celibacy.  Settling down with Raf and his respectable (presumably Christian Democrat voting) family is simply not an option.  This is a very Catholic melodrama. Shot in the style of a classic Hollywood melodrama, Anna is stunning – little wonder that critics sneered while audiences couldn’t resist.  The two songs from the film, ‘El Negro Zumbon’ and ‘Non Dimenticar’ were released as singles ‘by’ Mangano, even though her singing was dubbed by Flo Sandon – somehow they are her songs.  The film clearly left its mark – it’s one of three Mangano films featured in Cinema Paradiso (although we don’t see any of her scenes from Ulyssess) alongside the censor-baiting Bitter Rice.  The patrons of the Paradiso are seen watching ‘El Negro Zumbon’ (naturally!), but also the erotically charged sequence in which Gassman bares Anna’s shoulder as she lies across his bed – a scene used to illustrate Italian cinema’s gradual negotiation of censorship.  But the ‘El Negro Zumbon’ sequence makes its most irresistible guest appearance in Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario/Dear Diary – as it plays on the TV in a bar, he can’t help but join in with her dance. It’s that kind of number!

There are two elephants in the room in assessing Silvana’s career – her supposed ‘rival’ (although I suspect that rivalry was news to both of them – Lollobrigida was Loren’s rival) Sophia Loren, and her husband Dino De Laurentiis, who she married shortly after Bitter Rice.  Mangano and Loren appeared together briefly in Anna (the latter in a bit part, billed as Sofia Lazzaro) and then in different episodes in Vittorio De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli/Gold of Naples (1954).  De Sica had earlier been dismissive of the maggoriate, but would play a key role in elevating the reputations of Sophia and Silvana – Gold of Naples is often seen as a turning point for the former’s star power and the latter’s reputation as an actress (Andre Bazin was moved to raptures by Mangano’s performance as the prostitute Teresa).  Comparing the two stars is understandable – both former beauty queens, both married to powerful producers (Loren to Carlo Ponti), both developing greater dramatic ranges than their early critics might have expected.  But there are also key differences between them.  Loren is strongly associated with images of the South – the dark Mediterranean beauty, voluptuous and passionate – while Mangano is a more fluid figure (a Roman girl with Sicilian and English heritage).  Loren would become the biggest Italian star of all time, pursuing Hollywood and Italian careers simultaneously – a kind of transnational stardom that is more common now than it was then.  Mangano was a more reluctant star (and an even more reluctant sex symbol) – her early career interrupted by periodic ‘retirements’ to have children.  Loren was extrovert and flamboyant.  While Mangano was charismatic onscreen, she was visibly uncomfortable as a public figure and seemingly uncomfortable with her own beauty – she never missed an opportunity to conceal it in some way (shaving her head for Jovanka e le altre/Five Branded Women 1959 or virtually transforming herself into Anna Magnani for Lo Scopone Scientifico 1972).  Witness her awkward appearance on What’s My Line? (where she again tries to conceal her beauty) from the 1950s.  Sophia had a ‘knowability’ that enables major stardom – a relatively stable screen persona over time.  Silvana was constantly changing her image – by the 60s she even looked a little like Monica Vitti, especially when blonde. She was an enigma – some Italian critics even likened her to Garbo – which made her a tougher sell than the version of ‘Italianness’ embodied by Loren and Lollobrigida.  As late as her obituaries in the UK press (in 1989), one senses a disappointment that she hadn’t just remained the curvaceous rice worker with those thighs that everyone fell for rather than the more complex figure that they couldn’t quite get a handle on. Easier to dismiss her as a one hit wonder than get to grips with her idiosyncratic career.

The ‘Dino factor’ complicates the picture further.  In a Guardian piece written in 2003 to coincide with a revival of Bitter Rice, David Thomson makes her sound a little like the Italian equivalent of Charles Foster Kane’s talentless wife, forced onto productions that are beyond her capabilities.  He presents her as a competent but limited actress (beautiful but with a face like a mask) kept afloat by a powerful producer husband but even then failing to achieve the success of her rivals.  He relates an anecdote of Dino forcing her onto Richard Fleischer for Barabbas (1961) as a cheap substitute for the obviously superior Jeanne Moreau – ‘no one was excited about her, and she must have guessed how often she was cast as a favour to her husband’.  In her previous film, Five Branded Women, she had been billed ahead of Moreau and in her next one, Il Processo di Verona (Carlo Lizzani, 1963) she would get the most acclaim and her first award since Gold of Naples.  Fellini had wanted her for La Dolce Vita (perhaps what Thomson means is that Hollywood wasn’t excited about her). If she lacked momentum as an international star – largely by not seeking to be one (and thus resisting her husband’s attempts to mould her career) –  she was visibly developing as an actress.  But nor do I want to present Dino as the manipulative bad guy – without his prompting, she might have abandoned her acting career altogether, and there is little in her career that anyone needs to be embarrassed by (he was a much smarter producer than he was often given credit for).

le streghe

Mangano shone particularly in the film ad episodi because the format allowed her to show her range, and because its emphasis was often on comedy (another strength).  La Mia Signora (1964) exploits her comic partnership with Alberto Sordi by having them play five different married couples.  But Le Streghe (1967) is arguably the most important of these films, even though it was more critically than commercially successful in Italy (and won her a further award) – its US release was allegedly blocked in an attempt to protect the macho screen persona of Clint Eastwood, playing his one non-Western role in Italy as her bland husband in De Sica’s episode ‘La sera come le altre’ (‘An evening like the others’).  With episodes directed by Visconti (‘La strega bruciata viva’/’The witch burned alive’) and Pasolini (‘La terra vista dalla luna’/’The earth seen from the moon’), it provided her passage to arthouse respectability – her next film edipo rewould be Pasolini’s Edipo Re/Oedipus Rex  (1967), only her second since before Bitter Rice not to be produced by her husband.  VIsconti would give her one of her best roles as a vain, bitchy aristocrat in Gruppo di famiglia in un interno/Conversation Piece (1974), but Pasolini would use her even more prominently as an idealised eternal mother – playing not only Jocasta but his own mother  in Oedipus Rex (the opening scenes recall his earliest memories of his mother’s face), a cameo as the Madonna in Il Decameron (1970).  In Theorem, the camera is as vlcsnap-2013-06-01-17h52m08s186besotted with her beauty as it is with Terence Stamp’s, and she gives one of her greatest performances.  But I don’t mean to pass over Le Streghe so quickly, another film in need of rediscovery – currently only available as an unrestored DVD-on-demand.  Some of the most enjoyable sequences in Mangano’s films make use of her dancing ability (she was a trained dancer who attended the Jia Ruskaja school in her teens).  It’s how we first encounter her in Bitter Rice, dancing to Boogie-Woogie on her record player, an admiring crowd enjoying her every move.  She’s meant to be ‘natural’ and unpolished in that film, dancing included, while Anna and in particular Mambo (Robert Rossen, 1954) give her more complex choreography to perform.  Visconti gives us another great (if teasingly brief) Silvana dance – the sinuous ‘Canzone delle Streghe’ she performs as the unhappy movie star Gloria, clad in a tight gold dress, the camera remaining tight on her body.  Piero PIccioni’s fabulous music fades abruptly as she faints mid-song.  In the Pasolini episode, she forms a comic trio with Totò and Ninetto Davoli.  But the De Sica episode is the most enjoyable of all, with Mangano and Eastwood as the couple whose marriage has lost its spark. Essentially De Sica ‘doing’ Fellini, it presents a series of fantasy sequences (Silvana carried off by fumetti characters, Silvana as a vengeful dominatrix, Silvana leading a Felliniesque parade, Silvana performing a striptease to a packed stadium watched by a hapless Eastwood).  And once again, ‘drabbed down’ as the bored housewife, she attempts to conceal her glamour before it explodes again in the fantasy scenes.



The move into arthouse co-exists with more populist films (as was common with Italian stars – Mastroianni, for example), one of which is one of her greatest.  Lo Scopone Scientifico (Luigi Comencini 1972) pairs her with Sordi one last time as a couple from the borgata (the peripheral slums on the outskirts of Rome) who play cards against their nemesis, the wealthy American played by Bette Davis who puts up the stakes for the game of scopo seemingly only to remind them once a year that they can never win.  During a period when art cinema was casting her in wealthy (and even aristocratic) roles, it took her back to the poverty of BItter Rice but not as the sexy rice girl – her Antonia is haggard, deglamorised, her hair tangled, a Magnani figure, earthy and resilient (even in defeat).

Lo Scopone Scientifico

Silvana Mangano was only 59 when she died. She made only two films after the death of her son Federico in a plane crash in 1981 – one of which was Dune (1983), produced by her now-former husband.  For a career spanning 40 years, her filmography is smaller than that of many of her peers – 35 films, excluding her pre-Bitter Rice bit parts.  She may have been a reluctant star, but she’s too good to be forgotten – non dimenticare.



Buon Compleanno Il Re del Terrore

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of one of Italy’s longest running and most influential comics (or fumetti) – Diabolik, the adventures of a masked criminal anti-hero who commits ingenious crimes aided by his beautiful partner (in love and in crime) Eva Kant, a fumetti icon in her own right.  In case you were wondering, this is a very big deal.  Outside Italy (and to a lesser extent, France), the big D is probably best known (if at all) as incarnated by John Philip Law in Mario Bava’s incomparably magnificent Diabolik aka Danger: Diabolik! (Italy/France 1967), to my mind the greatest comic book movie ever made.[1]  In Italy, not knowing who Diabolik is would be like not knowing who Batman or Spiderman are. He inspires cult devotion, but he’s also a mainstream reference point – in advertising and in TV comedy sketches. I don’t think any franchise in the world produces classier or more beautiful merchandise – if I could find a way of getting that Diabolik sofa into the country, trust me I would.  To get a sense of the scale of the Diabolik franchise, check out the official website

Three editions of Diabolik are published every month – Diabolik Inedito features new stories, while classic tales are reprinted in Diabolik R and Diabolik Swiisss! (the sound his dagger makes when it flies through the air.) The bi-annual Il Grande Diabolik features slightly more ambitious stories than the relatively formulaic monthly ones and sometimes more exciting artwork (if Giuseppe Palumbo was Diabolik’s regular artist, it would be a very different book.)  I must confess that it took me a while to work out that only one of the monthly editions featured new stories – the comic has changed comparatively little over the years (it even seems to deliberately avoid depicting technology that will date it.)  Since his transformation (fairly early on) from outright sadistic villain to a more noble anti-hero, Diabolik has never undergone the kind of upheavals that an American comic book hero like Batman has.  There’s a case to be made that Diabolik suffers from a certain conservatism and timidity on the part of publishers Astorina and that it would benefit from an overhaul by the Italian equivalent of an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison. And yet it may be his very unchangeability that helps make him such an enduring icon.  Apart from his love for Eva, Diabolik is psychologically ‘flat’ – when he finally got an origin story (‘Diabolik, Chi Sei?’ no. 107, 1968) it didn’t even provide him with a real name, let alone any greater depth.  Raised on an island by a criminal mastermind called King, Diabolik was named after a panther that terrorised the island and was slain by King.  There’s some Oedipal potential in that set-up – Diabolik kills King and takes over his empire when he reaches adulthood – but our (anti-)hero remains as much of an enigma as ever.

It would be difficult to make a case for Diabolik being a ‘great comic’.  It’s initially derivative of Fantomas, the mysterious evil genius who haunted Paris (and enchanted the Surrealists) in the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, and countless films (starting with Louis Feuillade’s classic silent serial.)  Of the fumetti neri (dark comics) inspired by Diabolik, one of them is actually superior to it – writer Max Bunker (Lucianno Secchi) and artist Magnus’ (Roberto Raviola) Kriminal (1964-1974.)  Kriminal would be a more psychologically rounded character – motivated by the death of his parents to become ‘Il Re del Delitto’ (King of Crime), he was a kind of inverted Batman.  Bunker and Magnus also incorporated the kind of sado-eroticism that made Diabolik seem comparatively take – check out issue 5 ‘Omicidio Al Riformatorio’ (1964)  and imagine if Bava had filmed that.  But somehow Diabolik transcends his derivative, formulaic surroundings to be one of the great comic book characters – that it’s hard to say exactly how or why is part of his fascination.  He’s been celebrated as a pop art icon at the Rome exhibition ‘A Life Less Ordinary: Diabolik and Eva Kant’ (2009), while Eva was the inspiration for a shoe collection by fashion designer Ruthie Davis

Diabolik was created by two Milanese sisters, Angela and Lucianna Giussani, in 1962.  The story goes that they found a copy of a Fantomas novel on a train, which gave them both the inspiration for the character and the idea of a format that commuters could carry in their pocket.  Rather disappointingly, I’ve never seen anyone reading Diabolik on public transport in Italy, but I make a point of doing so when visiting – thus betraying myself as not only a tourist but a tourist who’s about 50 years behind a popular trend.  The first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ shows the debt to Fantomas – a ruthless thief and killer, a master of disguise, pursued by a redoubtable police inspector (Juve in the case of Fantomas, Ginko in case of Diabolik.)  The Giussani sisters initially intended the setting to be France so that they could deploy the guillotine as a method of execution – they later established the geographically non-specific Clerville as Diabolik’s equivalent to Gotham City. Like his Parisian predecessor, Diabolik could be anyone – we learn about halfway through the first story that one of the characters has been the King of Terror from the start.  In the most memorable scene, Inspector Ginko pursues Diabolik into a field of scarecrows – as he leaves, one of the scarecrows opens its eyes (guess who.) In issue 3 ‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’, he borrows his method of escape from the climax of the first Fantomas novel – he drugs and disguises an innocent man to be guillotined in his place.

‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’ is important for another reason. Diabolik’s escape is aided by a beautiful young widow (and murderer of her late husband) – Lady Eva Kant.  Eva ostensibly derives from another Fantomas character, Lady Beltham, but in some ways she is Diabolik’s greatest claim to originality.  Lady Beltham may be Fantomas’ lover, but she is a conflicted character, tormented by the crimes she participates in but too infatuated to break free.  Eva, on the other hand, is a bad girl from the off – she’s closer to the slinky, cat-suited anti-heroine Irma Vep from Feuillade’s Les Vampires.  It’s become popular to suggest in recent years that Eva is a kind of popular Italian feminist icon, a harbinger of independence and modernity.  Such claims might require some qualification – she doesn’t quite achieve the equal status to Diabolik that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel do with Steed in The Avengers.  Nevertheless, she predates Emma Peel and was created the same year as Cathy Gale (1963) – she shares much with them, from the black jump suit to her widowed status.  Eva is an increasingly active and independent heroine, more recently having solo adventures (one of which retcons her murdering of her husband, now a villain responsible for destroying her family.)  She would also play a key role in the rehabilitation of Diabolik – in ‘Lotta Disperata’ (no. 15, 1964), she intervenes to prevent him from killing some hapless victims.  The King of Terror is furious – he’s referring to himself in the third person as he rants, which is a Level 3 Rage Alert with masked supervillains.  He actually starts to throttle her, before it dawns on him that he can’t kill the woman he now realises he loves.  Her conscience proves infectious and his journey towards anti-hero status begins.  In Bava’s film, Eva is played by the stunning Marisa Mell with enormous charm, and I wouldn’t want to change anything about her performance. But she isn’t really the Eva of the comics – she’s more like a Bond girl, scantily dressed, in need of periodic rescues and sexually available to the hero. Bava began shooting the film with Catherine Deneuve, but couldn’t get on with her – it sounds like she thought she was too good for the film.  But Deneuve would have been the perfect Eva (albeit perhaps in a different film with a different Diabolik – as Tim Lucas suggests, she would have overshadowed John Philip Law.)  Eva was, after all, conceived after Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief – the icy beauty turned on by crime.

Bava’s Diabolik is different in a number of ways from the fumetti version, an opulent colourful pop art film fashioned from a monochrome, hardboiled source. But it also gets to the essential fantasy at the heart of Diabolik in a way that the original never quite manages – two glamorous people who commit outrageous crimes and are so turned on by it that they can’t keep their hands off each other.  Their revolving bed exploits amidst mounds of cash are in contrast with their comic book counterparts, who we’re more likely to see reading the newspapers or watching TV.  I once saw the film on a triple-bill (at the much-missed Scala cinema in London) with the Adam West Batman movie (1966) and Barbarella (1967), a shrewd combo if ever there was one.  Tongue-in-cheek was the default approach to comic book heroes in 60s film and TV – Fantomas had returned in comic gadget-filled vehicles that depicted Juve as a buffoon, while Batman openly mocked its hero as a cowled stuffed shirt and showed the villains having all the fun (Catwoman, too, has much in common with Eva.)  Diabolik may share some of Batman’s campiness and love of gadgetry, and the underground hideout is more like the Batcave than the rather less flamboyant basement that he has in the original fumetti.  But while Batman is amused by the morally upright sexual abstinence of its hero,  Diabolik puts sex back into the mix, thus pushing it closer to the ‘adult comic’ world of Barbarella (these two Dino de Laurentiis productions also have John Philip Law in common.)  Most interesting of all is the film’s decision to relocate Diabolik to a kind of police state, corrupt and repressive, so that he becomes a counter-cultural hero, at one point destroying the city’s financial institutions.  A hero who strikes terror into the hearts of those who control and misuse the economy – hm, why might that still be such an appealing idea?

So join me in wishing the King of Terror a Happy Birthday – technically, he doesn’t blow out the candles until November but there’ll be celebrations of gli anni del terrore throughout the year.  Meanwhile, you have plenty of time to save up for a present.  Do remember that he has expensive tastes and remember, too, that he has excellent aim when throwing that dagger – Swiisss!!!!


An iBook version of the first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ is available at iTunes

[1]Worst case scenario: they might have experienced Diabolik only via the perma-smirk snarkfest that is Mystery Science Theatre, in which case there is little hope for them.