PINA MENICHELLI, Our Lady of Spasms (Nostra Signora degli Spasimi)

Seriously ill, dependent on morphine and in an impossible relationship, Countess Natka (Pina Menichelli) decides to commit suicide by first taking a large dose of morphine.  As the drug numbs her pain and fills her senses with a temporary euphoria, she realizes (lower far right frame) that she must get her lover to complete the act.  She will ask him to give her what will be, unknown to him, a second — and fatal — dose of morphine.  Tigre Reale, Itala-Film, 1916, directed by Giovanni Pastrone.

“Tutto veniva dalla sua corona di capelli, che era un puro capolavoro: chioma di Gorgona, serpenti dell’isteria, riccioli di pathos, desiderio e follia mescolati. Mostruosi ornamenti di un giardino di folla: e intorno a Pina Menichelli, Nostra Signora degli Spasimi . . .”

“Everything came from her crown of hair, that was a pure masterpiece: a Gorgon’s mane, serpents of hysteria, curls of pathos, desire and madness intertwined.  Monstrous adornments of a crowded garden: all around Pina Menichelli, Our Lady of Spasms . . .”  (Nino Frank, Cinema dell’arte.  Panorama du film italien, Paris, Bonne, 1951.)

In one of the early scenes in Tigre Reale (Royal Tigress, Itala-Film, 1916) directed by Giovanni Pastrone, La contessa Natka (Pina Menichelli) meets Ambasciatore Georgio La Ferlita (Alberto Napoti), at the opera.  These frames show a striking effect accomplished by a semi-circular pan shot employed by Pastrone:  using the Countess as the “pivot point” of the frame, the camera scans the interior of the opera house from the stage to the luxury boxes opposite the seats where the Countess and the Ambassador watch.

Made only 18 months after Cabiria, Pastrone’s bold and unexpected use of camera movement in this scene, and elsewhere throughout the film shows that his use of this technique, while widely lauded in minimal use in Cabiria, has now become much more daring and sophisticated, as well as integral to the narrative.  Motion and color will be two key elements of diva film, whether practiced by Pastrone, Nino Oxilia, Carmen Gallone, Amleto Palmeri or other directors of important films of the genre.  And then there are the Divas themselves, most prominently among them Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and “la terza grazia del cinema muto italiano” — “the Third Grace of Italian silent film” — Pina Menichelli.

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In his brief but indispensable biography of Pina Menichelli, Italian film historian Vittorio Martinelli describes how, “in the history of Italian cinema from the years of World War I to the Great Depression of the twenties, at least for ten years, the name Pina Menichelli . . . had a great popularity scarcely imaginable today.”  It was a legacy precisely as she desired it to be.

For every “Norma Desmond” or Mae Murray, there is a Norma Shearer or a Kay Francis, and probably quite a few more, who were glad to be done with celebrity more than we their adoring public could perceive.  We remember, sometimes painfully, the slow sad fade of those who seem unable or unwilling to let go of fame or of an image.  Yet there are those who are more than glad to be rid of the trappings, the prison of fame, to move on with their lives to something that may be just as much or more a part of them as the fame, the only part in which we see them eternally.  So often it is we who cannot let go.

Pina Menichelli had married Italian journalist Libero Pica in Argentina in 1909, and they separated shortly before the birth of their third child in 1912, just before the beginning of her career in film.  Through the years, Pica steadfastly refused to grant her the annulment of their marriage.  She waited until his death in 1924 to marry film producer Carlo Amato, and then promptly retired from acting to assume her preferred life as a wife and mother of her two surviving children, now aged 12 and 14.  It is rare that a performing artist leaves the public at or near the absolute peak of their artistry and fame, but Menichelli did exactly that.  (She did have one prior precedent to follow:  Lyda Borelli ended her career under very similar circumstances six years earlier.)  So complete was Pina Menichelli’s  break with the past that, as recounted by Martinelli:

“[She] had destroyed everything that could recall the past, burning photographs, portraits, programs, posters and any other documents, and severing any relationship, already very tenuous, with “those” films. Only a faithful servant . . . had over the years retrieved a few photographs, but without the knowledge of her mistress, who absolutely did not want to hear more talk of cinema.”

No more “talk of cinema?”  But why?  One can retire and, with sufficient financial resources, practically reinvent oneself, if that is what one desires.  Only if the past is either so repugnant or incongruent with the “new” present would the desire to escape it completely make sense.  Was that the case with Pina Menichelli?  Possibly.

Menichelli retired to become a housewife and mother.  Her work in film was at odds with this.  Her screen image was not simply that of diva, a complex creature in and of itself, but a rare diva who, at least in her earlier films (particularly Il fuoco and Tigre Reale), was “La favilla, la vampa, la cenere,”  “the spark, the flame, the ashes,” an all-in-one, ultra femme-fatale.  And the “vamp” or “femme-fatale” went against the grain of the concept of the Italian film-diva and of the diva-film.

Following Il fuoco and Tigre Reale, Menichelli was able to move beyond a vamp variant of the diva film.  But her reputation and image remained that of a sex symbol, an outrageous proposition in the early 20th century.

She was now 35 and been acting virtually her entire life, with the exception of three years in Argentina after marriage and the birth of her children.  It seems to have been her desire to resume the family life she had essentially given up after the separation from her first husband.  Her remarriage soon after his death made resumption of a stable family life feasible.  Taking these factors into consideration, along with the post-war economic depression in Italy and near-collapse of the Italian film industry in the mid-1920s, Menichelli’s decision to leave show business and celebrity begins to make sense.  I say “begins” only because for many of us fame seems to be something so rare, so desirable, so fleeting, that the idea of letting it go willingly is almost unthinkable.

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         Natka enters the party pensively, she attracts the attention of every male in the vicinity, not the least, that of Giorgio, the ambassador, his mind reeling as he recalls their moment of passion at the opera, now rekindled at the sight of Natka . . .
          Natka not only does not notice the male stares, she is fumbling, rather adorably, with the collar button of her coat.  She appears as a normal woman, or girlish, even, for the first time in the film.

Tigre Reale was an 1873 novel by Giovanni Verga, and had been offered to Itala Film by the Countess Dina Castellazzi Aordevolo as her own work.  In reality, Verga had arranged with the Countess to treat the screenplay as hers, in order to avoid associating his name directly with a motion picture adaptation of his novel.  It is

reflective of the ambiguity felt toward the new art of cinema by some — but not all — writers of “serious” literature, even in the adaptation of their own original work for a screenplay.  Itala purchased the rights to Tigre Reale for six hundred pounds in September 1912.  However, the screenplay sat in a drawer, ignored until 1916 when, in the wake of the success of Il fuoco, Giovanni Pastrone selected it as his follow-up to that film for Pina Menichelli.

(Above, The countess and her friend relax and browse the floor for interesting men.)

(Left:  Alone for only a moment, Natka is almost immediately surrounded by her admirers.)

(Below: She wears an enormous, six-foot  necklace of pearls . . . and dangling at its end, near her ankles, a sacred object — a gold crucifix — to ward off unwanted evil . . .)

(Below:  As the men swarm around and nearly encircling her, she quickly jerks the necklace and its dangling crucifix level with her crotch.  It is a gesture, a sign, that the men immediately understand.)

The use of the crucifix as a decorative object dangling on a six-foot pearl necklace is outrageous in itself — it shocked people nearly seven decades later when imitated by Madonna.  But using it as a talisman between her legs to ward off unwanted sexual advances is still jaw-dropping today.  One can only wonder about its effect on audiences of 1916.  And a Roman Catholic Italian audience at that.  But the church and censors did not attach much significance to it, at least not as much as later scenes involving suicides, grotesque fiery death and adultery without an ultimate punishment, things that are typical prime time TV entertainment fare today.

The plot of Tigre Reale is both convoluted and emotionally ecstatic, with a level of unbelievability that, by contrast, allows the film’s many outrageous images to seem perfectly appropriate.  The ambassador in Paris, Giorgio La Ferlita, encounters during a reception the Russian countess, Natka, with whom he is fascinated, even to the extent of challenging to a duel another man who has insulted her.  Despite being both enticed and rejected by her several times over, he cannot leave her alone.

He is intrigued and completely enamored of her, and she begins to tell him about her horrible past. She married a Count, of course, a marriage that was unhappy.  She was in love with another man named Dolski.  Her husband discovered the adultery, and had his rival exiled to Siberia.  Natka climbs hills, crosses rivers and the frozen tundra to reach her lover Dolski in Siberia, only to find him with another woman.  The guilty lover escapes his imprisonment, then after she confronts him, he commits suicide in front of her.

After she tells Giorgio the story of her life, the Countess Natka disappears for months. After searching in vain, the diplomat began a relationship with another rich woman.  But eventually he reunites with the mysterious Countess.  Georgio goes to her at her hotel and finds her gravely ill, and still married to the abusive Count.  Realizing the impossibility of living, or loving another man, she plans to commit suicide with the unwitting assistance of Giorgio.

Before his arrival at her suite, she takes a large dose of morphine (to which she is possibly addicted).  Upon his arrival they seem to reunite joyfully, but she feigns a serious spell of illness and when he panics, she tells him to get her “medicine” from the cabinet.  It is the morphine.  He gives her a dose which combined with the one she had just taken, causes her to lose consciousness, appearing to die.  During this sequence of events, a fire breaks out at the hotel, the two lovers are trapped having been locked in the hotel suite by her husband, who had discovered Giorgio’s reappearance. However, Natka regains consciousness during the holocaust, and she and Giorgio manage to escape, while her husband dies horribly in the fire.

The following images are among the most striking of Menichelli as Natka.  Intoxicated by the overtures of Giorgio, she deeply inhales the fragrance of a bouquet of roses, then begins to DEVOUR them in near-orgasmic ecstasy.  The scene was such that it inspired the surrealist Salvador Dali to recall it years later in his essay on diva film, a subject which fascinated him as a young man in Spain:

The Age of Hysterical Cinema

I recall those women frantic and wobbly of step, their hands caressing the castaways of their love down the corridor walls, clinging to the curtains and plants, those women of the screen, whose neckline slipped continuously over bare shoulders, in an endless night among cypress and marble staircases.

At that critical and turbulent period of eroticism, palms and magnolias were literally taken in bites, torn with their teeth by these women, whose fragile and pre-tubercular appearance did not preclude, however, their audacious shapes thriving on a precocious and feverish youth.”  Salvador Dali, 1932.

[My translation may be a bit awkward, but I think you get the gist of what Dali was trying to convey about diva film, and specifically the psychic impact of these kinds of images on the future surrealist as a young man.  Sort of explains a few things about Dali, does it not?]

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Menichelli’s ecstatic cab ride above are the next series (the last, for now) of frames from the final sequence of Tigre Reale, in which a nearly unrecognizable Pina Menichelli as Countess Natka proceeds to carry out, almost, her assisted suicide by morphine.  (And in the first frames before she takes the drug, Menichelli’s sick and weary Natka resembles no one so much as her rival diva, Lyda Borelli.)

Natka puts her suicide plan into action — reaching into the medicine cabinet, she retrieves a bottle of the clear liquid morphine, with its ominous instructions, “The morphine may ease your pain, but too many drops will be fatal.”  It is precisely what she desires.

The bitter taste of the morphine is quickly forgotten as it takes effect, seen immediately below, in the marked change in Menichelli’s expression from two consecutive frames first at left, then at right.

Above, the brief euphoria provided by the morphine brings Natka back to “normal” until she remembers, below, that she must still trap her love Giorgio into completing, unwittingly, her death wish.

Almost immediately upon Giorgio’s arrival, Natka begins to feign illness.

Below, she asks Giorgio to find and administer her “medicine.”

She consumes the apparently fatal dose, and is “Overcome by the double insanity of love and death,” in which the drug again briefly rekindles a small spark, which is quickly extinguished.

Giorgio is unaware he has played a part in a planned assisted suicide, but he is also unaware that Natka is not dead, and will shortly revive, ironically by the hotel fire that kills her husband, and frees her to be with Giorgio.

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Martinelli aptly sums up Pina Menichelli’s characterization of Natka, and this period of her initial popularity, by quoting two writers, the latter of whom was her contemporary:

“‘She was not trying to provoke the sympathy of the audience, but its dislike. She was looking for the dislike of the spectators. The femme fatale who has never a tender or calm thought, but rather, sows hate, a duel, and is happy and proud. It was impossible to love her, but it was so attractive that we hope to be destroyed by the sharp claws of this beast. She hovered above men who, rolling about, pitiful and small, at her feet, hoped at the very most to touch the hem of her dress.’

“‘With her silhouette twisted, screwed, pointed, her sudden smiles . . . her worldliness and dissipation . . . her feverish lust for life, Menichelli dominates the film from top to bottom,’ so expresses an acute scholar like Francis Savio, while Nino Frank, a French writer who lived in Italy at the time of those movies, indulges in a prose even more frenzied than the film itself: ‘Everything came from the crown of hair, which was a pure masterpiece, a Gorgon‘s mane, snakes of hysteria, curls of pathos, desire and madness intertwined. Monstrous adornments of a crowded garden: all around Pina Menichelli, Our Lady of Spasms, arranged in terraces to nowhere, but the imagination, falling short, wanders still with regret and sorrow.’

For Further Reading:

Martinelli, Vittorio, Pina Menichelli, Le sfumature del fascino, Bulzoni Editore, Rome, 2002. Softcover. 130pp. In Italian. Many B&W photos.

Dalle Vacche, Angela, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, University of Texas Press (2008, Paperback, with DVD, “Diva Dolorosa,” (Filmmuseum Netherlands)/VPRO, 1999, Dir: Peter Delpeut).

Brunetta, Gian Piero, The History of Italian Cinema, Princeton University Press (2009, paperback).

(For more information on the above books, see the “Bibliography” under the page header image.)

For further viewing, in addition to the Diva Dolorosa DVD, available with the Dalle Vacche book or separately (each is about 35.00US so the book is the better bargain).  Also, see YouTube and search for any of the divas or films or directors by name.  Many decent quality, some outstanding, portions of films, (and in case of Tigre Reale available in its entirety), are to be found for viewing free at the YouTube website.