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04 July 2015

Pina Menichelli

We are still at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2015 in Bologna. One of the sections is 1915: Cinema of A Hundred Years Ago. The heyday of the dazzling Italian divas, like Francesca Bertini, Lyda Borelli and fascinating and enigmatic Pina Menichelli (1890-1984). With her contorted postures and disdainful expression, she was the most bizarre Italian silent film diva. Her film Il fuoco/The Fire (1915) was shown earlier this week.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano, no. 377. Photo: Pinto, Roma.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano, no. 411. Photo Pinto, Roma.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano (Milan), no. 410. Photo: Pinto.

Pina Menichelli
French postcard by BPA, Rueil.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard, no. 47.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano, no. 409. Photo: Pinto, Roma.

Notre Dame des Spasmes


Giuseppina Menichelli was born in Castroreale, Italy, in 1890. She was a sister of singer and actress Dora Menichelli.

After starting her film career at the Roman Cines company in 1913, Pina was catapulted into stardom by Giovanni Pastrone's D'Annunzian film Il Fuoco/The Fire (1915) co-starring with Febo Mari. Il Fuoco tells the love story of a young, vulnerable painter and a wealthy woman. The film's erotic atmosphere caused it to be banned and prompted clerical demonstrations against the film.

Because of her femme fatale, men devouring type, and her extreme and sudden gestures she was nicknamed 'Notre Dame des Spasmes'. Menichelli did however know how to play also in a more restrained way, as Tigre Reale/Royal Tiger (Giovanni Pastrone, 1916) showed.

The script was based on a book by Giovanni Verga and was scripted by the author himself. Verga was a Sicilian writer known for his realist (verismo) fiction rather than for his symbolist-decadent works. Despite this the story of Tigre Reale is a melodrama, full of unlikely twists and turns, but the public was held, mesmerized, by the fascinating and enigmatic Menichelli.

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Ed. Vettori, Bologna. Photo: still from Tigre Reale (Giovanni Pastrone, 1916).

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard. Photo: probably still from Tigre reale (Giovanni Pastrone, 1916).

Pina Menichelli
Italian postcard by Vettori, Bologna, no. 461. Pina Menichelli and Alberto Nepoti, probably in Tigre reale (Giovanni Pastrone, 1916).

Pina Menichelli in IL padrone delle ferriere
Italian postcard by Vettori, Bologna. Photo: publicity still for Il padrone delle ferriere (Eugenio Perego, 1919). The other actress must be Lina Millefleurs.

Pina Menichelli in La seconda moglie
Italian postcard by Edizione G.B. Falci, no. 262. Photo: publicity still of Pina Menichelli and Livio Pavanelli in La seconda moglie (Amleto Palermi, 1922).

Pina Menichelli in La seconda moglie
Italian postcard by Rinascimento Film, Roma. Photo: publicity still of Pina Menichelli in La seconda moglie (Amleto Palermi, 1922).

The Letter


La dama de chez Maxim's (Amleto Palermi, 1923) was one of Pina Menichelli's last films. With this film and with Occupati d'Amelia (Telemaco Ruggeri, 1925), both adaptations of boulevard comedies by Georges Feydeau, Menichelli proved she was well able to do comedy and not only melodramatic and 'vampy' films. In both films one of her co-stars was the French comedian Marcel Lévesque, on the far right on the card below.

After these comedies, however, Pina Menichelli withdrew from the cinema and held back any attempt to interview her.

Pina Menichelli died in 1984 in Milan. Fifteen years later she was one of the divas featured in Diva Dolorosa (Peter Delpeut, 1999).

In her fascinating, ironic text, Short Manual for the Aspiring Scenario Writer, the French author Colette gave a typical description of the femme fatale in cinema, largely based on Pina Menichelli.

Talking about the 'arms' of the femme fatale Colette indicates the hat and the rising gorge: "The femme fatale' s hat spares her the necessity, at the absolute apex of her wicked career, of having to expend herself in pantomime. When the spectator sees the evil woman coiffing herself with a spread-winged owl, the head of a stuffed jaguar, a bifid aigrette, or a hairy spider, he no longer has any doubts; he knows just what she is capable of. And the rising gorge? The rising gorge is the imposing and ultimate means by which the evil woman informs the audience that she is about to weep, that she is hesitating on the brink of crime, that she is struggling against steely necessity, or that the police have gotten their hands on the letter. What letter? THE letter."

Pina Menichelli and Milton Rosmer in La donna e l'uomo
Italian postcard by Ed. G.B. Falci, Milano. Pina Menichelli and Milton Rosmer in the Italian silent film La donna e l'uomo (Amleto Palermi, 1923), produced by Rinascimento Film and distributed by UCI.

Pina Menichelli in La biondina
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano Milan) for one of Pina Menichelli's last films La biondina (Amleto Palermi, 1923), based on a book by Marco Praga and tells the tragedy of a woman whose husband kills her in the end. It seems that Italian censorship forced the scriptwriter to add morality to the film, so Praga's tragedy is framed within a story about a modest, conventional wife who, encouraged by her friend, dreams of breaking out, but then reads Praga's book and decides to remain honest and loyal. The actress on the left on the card could be the friend (Gemma de' Ferrari).

Pina Menichelli in La dame de chez Maxim
Italian postcard (G.B. Falci, Milano) for Pina Menichelli's last film La dame de Chez Maxim (Amleto Palermi, 1923). Menichelli played the legendary Môme Crevette in one of the many film adaptations of Georges Feydeau's classic boulevard comedy.

Pina Menichelli in La dame de chez Maxim
Italian postcard. Photo: G.B. Falci, Milano. Publicity still for La dama de chez Maxim's (1923) with Marcel Lévesque at far right.

Pina Menichelli in La dame de Chez Maxim
Italian postcard. Photo: G.B. Falci, Milano. Publicity still for La dama de chez Maxim's (1923).

Sources: Vittorio Martinelli (Le dive del silenzio), Greta de Groat (Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen), Il Cinema Ritrovato 2015 and IMDb.

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