As Italian cinema became more commercial in the fifties and sixties, it produced a generation of glamorous actors and actresses whose natural charms were inevitable to the Hollywood studios, eager to add an international flavour to their films. But these weren’t the gosh-golly dames of the pre-war era. The Donne Fatale—much like the Femme Fatale—was about an ownership of sexuality. It is an ethos that might have been immediately terrifying to the buttoned-up executives in Hollywood studios at one time. But this was a new era; and Italian women showed cinema a new type of glamour.
The Donne Fatale is a rather underappreciated (although widely recognised) advancement. Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano and others—most from working class backgrounds—were a response to the nation’s declining aristocracy, who were embracing American behaviours. The cultural persistence of aristocratic influence, however, extended into the way that Italians perceived post-war glamour. The attraction of Hollywood-style opulence and sex appeal was balanced by a fascination with aristocratic poise, class and style; a period remembered as the Golden Age of the Jet-Set, which saw the fame of one Gianni Agnelli. Stars were pulled in various directions and they often tried to achieve a balance between aloofness and availability, refinement and exposure.
But to argue that something is glamorous, we must observe the meaning and history of Glamour. Hedonism, extravagance, wealth, leisure, beauty, consumption, and femininity are all themes of ‘being glamorous’—widely traced to the Parisian courts of Napoleon III. From there, it spread to their regal cousins in London or in the Tuscan hills by Aosta. Before one can observe the fissure-like change that arose in the fifties, royal opulence (as a distinctive and appealing upper-class lifestyle) is central to explaining glamour—worn like inherited pearls by the famous Italian temptresses to come, as they fashioned themselves a new glamour.
We start with the beginning of Italy’s film industry. Although Hollywood pictures were widely shown during the 1930s, the Italian counterparts were perceived as inferior versions of American stars. But after the war, the nation sought to emulate a U.S. model of liberal culture. American bars, jazz, and slang captured the imagination of the youth, and a new generation of actresses sought to embody the sizzling presence of Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. Beauty pageants became an unlikely recruitment ground between the late forties and early fifties—igniting the careers of Silvana Pampanini, Silvana Mangano, Lollobrigida and Loren. Marketable sexuality came before audition tapes, as the judges were often film directors and producers. From there, these young women would find themselves portraying tragic, big-bosomed peasant-women called popolana, a far cry from the bourgeois femmes of the Fascist era.
In neorealism, misery and female empowerment went hand-in-hand. A notable early example was Clara Calamai in Visconti’s Obsession (1943) and the inimitable Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City (1945). Like Lady Liberty, these statuesque beauties represented a sense of hope for the post-war nation; their characters were fiery, strong-willed, and good-hearted. From Piedmont to Sicily, the women on the screen were recognisable in each village and city—a contrast to the hyper-glamorous American Dame.
They wore simple clothes, and with very few exceptions, were full-figured and dark-haired. Their beauty appeared to be raw and primitive, and more individual than the manufactured variety of Hollywood. Many of their early films were set in the countryside. The female characters represented poor, spirited women, linked to the land. Giuseppe De Santis’ Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) was a watermark film for this character, making a superstar of Silvana Mangano. The former beauty queen would remain a box-office attraction throughout the fifties, equally at home in curiosities like Ulysses or intimate modern subjects such as De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli (Gold of Naples, 1954). She also starred in many of De Laurentiis’ blockbuster co-productions, and her elegant presence was even sought by the distinguished auteurs, appearing in four movies for Pasolini and three for Visconti.
Few could have anticipated the modish glamour of Gina Lollobrigida in the ensuing years. This is where the popolana would make way for something chicer, and brimming with a seductive attitude. La Lollo, as headline-writers dubbed her, found her charms—and certain buxom traits—appreciated by American producers. But it was her role as dangerously sexy soprano Lina Cavalieri, in La donna più belle del mondo, that embodied the meaning of Donna Fatale glamour. Her star was undimmed in her later career, as the older woman (That Splendid November) whom a teenage boy becomes all too understandably besotted. Perhaps only Elsa Martinelli in Un amore a Roma came close to capturing the same level of attention, until the arrival of a certain Sophia Loren caused an international meltdown.
Loren’s early career followed a familiar course: an impoverished childhood, beauty contests, and uninspiring bit-parts in movies. After becoming the protege and later the wife of producer Carlo Ponti, she was launched into worldwide stardom. Her first English-language movies, like The Pride and the Passion (1957), mainly served to show off her striking appearance, usually in the guise of a conventional spitfire. But soon she emerged as much more: an actress of notable range and subtlety in such varied roles as the embittered window of a gangster in The Black Orchid (1958), or a rich man’s mistress falling in love with a naïve GI in That Kind of Woman (1959). Over her long career, Loren has become a pin-up—fawned over by leagues of men. A famous example is in De Sica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, in which she performs an iconic striptease as prostitute Mara. This was the Italian woman setting the screen alight: assure of herself and her sexuality; provocative and mischievous. The scene is as red-hot carnal as it is comedic.
Another actress around that time would become the girlish counterpart to Loren’s seductive womanhood. Claudia Cardinale revived the earthy naivety of the popolana in the sixties, starring in Rocco and his Brothers, Fellini’s 8 ½ and even in American films like Pink Panther. The famously distant nature her characters embodied (an object of male longing in 8 ½) was in keeping with her French-Italian background; more Deneuve or Bardot than the extroversion and cleavage of Loren and Lollobrigida. But as with other Donne Fatale, she could never escape her role as a Mediterranean temptress—the sort of woman that, at the time, could make a man lose his mind.
Not all Donne Fatale pursued mainstream pictures, however. Monica Vitti came to symbolise something more enigmatic and sophisticated. A scion of arthouse cinema and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s muse, she certainly didn’t want to appear ‘fun’—let alone funny. Even in her bawdy comedic turns (a rite-of-passage in Italy) her eyes seem half-open and her wonderfully aristocratic nose raised to the heavens. But it was an indifference-par-existentialism. In Antonioni’s trilogy, her characters are women who want to, and enjoy having, sex—not as a foil for men, but because she likes it too. And although the analogous nature of Antonioni’s cinema asks us to see Vitti as a tortured soul, she still carries with her that brilliantly seductive stare; one capable of bringing anybody to their knees. Her candid sexuality is what makes the Donne Fatale such a revolutionary figure in the history of cinema.
In retrospect, the fifties and early sixties broke ground with the emergence of the Donna Fatale woman. They were much more than their costumes or make up, or damsels in distress for their male counterparts; they embodied a distinct breed of morally-ambiguous, far reaching glamour. These were ionic women who personified an aloofness yet a subtle availability; a sense of refinement but teetering on the edge of over exposure. The Donna Fatale women were catalysts for change; they personified a woman who knows what she wants, owns her sexuality and doesn’t care what you think.