Pina Menichelli was born Giuseppa Iolanda Menichelli in 1890, in the village of Castroreale, Messina, in Sicily, the second child in a family of actors. Her mother Francisca had taken up the profession after watching her own older brother, defy their parents who wanted him to follow the intellectual path of his uncle Don Gioacchino Ventura, an academic, an author and lecturer on politics and philosophy. The youngest generation, Pina and her three siblings, all joined their parents onstage from earliest childhood in the footlights whenever a baby or small child was required. Pina and older sister Lilla both received a secondary education in Bologna, which ultimately did nothing to discourage either from following their parents in the performing arts.
Young Pina’s first important break came when she was seventeen: her admission to the acting company of Irma Gramatica who in her thirties was already considered among the most important actors of the Italian stage. With the Gramatica company, Menichelli gained her first notices in the press, and extensive touring that took her to Argentina and Buenos Aires where she met and married her first husband, an expatriate Neapolitan journalist. At this point, Menichelli took a detour from her acting career. She remained in Argentina and in 1909 bore her first child who died soon afterward, then a healthy second child born a year later. She stayed in Argentina with a failing marriage until 1912 when, again pregnant, she left her husband to return to Italy and gave birth to her third child in Milan that year.
Menichelli wasted little more time getting back to her career, rejoining the Gramatica company in Italy. However, she soon attracted the attention of Cines, S.A., the film production company in Rome. Now separated from her husband, with a two-year old child and an infant to care for, she found the prospect of a regular salary, minus the grueling life of a traveling player, too tempting to resist.
With Cines, she made her first film in March of 1913, Le mani ignote (“Unknown Hands”), released by Kleine in the U.S. in August as “House of Mystery;” then with the American release of her second film, Zuma (as “Zuma the Gypsy“) in October, Menichelli received a favorable notice, her first “name recognition” in the American film trade press. Over the next two years she made nearly forty more films, ranging from 3 and 4 reel action-adventure dramas and literary adaptations to split-reel comic shorts, including the split-reel, Una tragedia al cinematografo (“A Tragedy at the Movies”).
By early 1915, Menichelli was attracting major notice in the Italian film press. Although her performances showed she had great promise , in particular Alla deriva (“Adrift“) and Sottomarino n.27 (“Submarine No. 27“), she was accused of “Borellisimo” and “Bertiniagge,” in other words, of imitating the acting styles of Lyda Borelli — “Borelli-isms” and Francesca Bertini — “Bertini-sian.” Italian film historian Vittorio Martinelli notes that her last scene in “Adrift” was “marred by an attitude of slouching her head, suddenly, like Borelli.” And although the action adventure tale “Submarine No. 27” (possibly the first submarine war film?) in particular was a huge success, this and many of the other films did not give Menichelli the opportunity to do much more than be the beautiful love interest, not central to the stories.
Menichelli’s big break should have come in late 1914 with the release of Enrico Guazzoni’s major production of Julius Caesar for Cines. She was cast as Cleopatra. But after filming had finished, during the final edit there was a major change in the film’s narrative and the part of Cleo was cut completely. But, in a fortuitous twist of fate, she got her big break anyhow — as the result of her performance in a small role in another Cines production directed by Guazzoni, For Napoleon and France, in which Menichelli played a French drummer girl who sacrifices her life for country. When the top director at Itala-Film studios in Turin screened the film, he was fascinated by Menichelli. Legend has it that Giovanni Pastrone stopped the projector, pulled out the film and cut out a frame of Menichelli, handed it to his assistants and demanded that they head for Rome immediately, find this actress and offer her a contract. They did, and she signed.
Il fuoco (The Fire) was the first film directed by Giovanni Pastrone after Cabiria (excluding the Cabiria spin-off, Marvelous Maciste, rushed into production to capitalize on the unprecedented popularity of Cabiria and the character of “Maciste,” particularly in the U.S). Pastrone had achieved in Cabiria a level of international success never before witnessed in the young art of motion pictures, not even by Griffith. (Birth of a Nation was being filmed in America during roughly the same period as Cabiria and “Maciste” in Italy, though not released until late in 1915.) And with Cabiria, Itala Film of Turin had vaulted ahead of its older Roman rival, Cines.
Pina Menichelli must have felt that she was making the correct decision in leaving Cines, her first film home. She had contributed to forty films at Cines only to have her “Cleopatra” of Julius Caesar left on the cutting room floor in her biggest career opportunity to date. But her first project with Itala, Il fuoco, would prove anything but a safe, conservative career move for Menichelli, or Giovanni Pastrone.
Il fuoco is based upon a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian poet and prose artist whose career would take a hard right turn in the next few years as he became a spiritual leader of Italy’s fascist movement with his black-shirt goon squads. But for now, it was his art that mattered and Pastrone thought enough of it to make it his follow-up to Cabiria. But Il fuoco could not count on its appeal with Italian nationalism and monumental past, as had Cabiria. Instead it would be sold the only way it possibly could: as an art film, and one with no small amount of artifice. A simple plot synopsis makes this obvious.
Two artists — an enigmatic poetess and a painter — meet by chance in a wooded marsh. The painter, intrigued, looks forward to seeing her the next time he comes to this swamp — but the next time she is distant and cold; yet she leaves behind (what he takes to be) a note or a poem to him. She later appears to him in his room, and literally sparks fly and a flame ignites along with their passion. Needless to say, the affair is brief and doomed. She invites him to her estate and castle, also home to an owl, who the poetess seems to resemble with her owl-like headdress. The artist loses his love and his mind in the process. It is an art film. And this is how it was marketed to the Italian public. Most importantly, this is how it was presented to the censors and the Roman Catholic Church, but not until after it was first rejected by the censors and condemned by Church officials.
Before its release, the film was reviewed by the censors and according to Italian film historian Martinelli, it “was ordered withdrawn within days of screening.” Martinelli describes what happened next: “This was followed by an ‘anathema’ launched by the Bishop of Arezzo against this ‘message of perversion.’” According to Martinelli, “Itala was able to easily take advantage of this episode, [movie] posters were affixed with a banner where it was stated that a complaint tried to ban the film, but after a careful examination they [censors] gave back permission, because it was declared an ‘art film.’”
It appears that negotiations between censors, including the Church, and Itala and its financial backers in Turin concluded in favor of passing the film, and Itala was permitted to release it, but with what was essentially a caveat that Il fuoco was an “art film” — code for “adults only” — the equivalent of a “hard” R rating for 1915 Italian cinema audiences. Martinelli’s colorful description of Menichelli’ performance in Il fuoco also deserves repeating here:
“The unusual features and temperament of the actress are skillfully highlighted by the valuable lighting effects of [cinematographer] Segundo Chomón, who, framing it from below, highlights the looks: now intensely sensual, now sardonically contemptuous of the protagonist, emphasizing it with bizarre hairstyles, similar to the owl in the film that appears and disappears from the battlements of the bizarre castle in the background of this mysterious love affair between an enigmatic poet (Menichelli) and a young painter (Febo Mari): the passion between the two turns from a simple ‘spark,’ is exalted in the ‘blaze’ and it goes out, leaving only ‘ash.’ The result is a fascinating, surreal and symbolic, pattern often imitated but never equaled, the ‘wondrous libertine flourish,’ noted by a reviewer of the time.” [And Menichelli’s owl head-dress/coiffure is priceless!]
As might be expected, the controversy over Il fuoco only increased interest in the film. It proved the unique talent of Pastrone was not dependent upon grand spectacle, that he could follow an epic success with a successful, small art film. At any rate the day of the epic film was now done. War films, with war nearly in their own back yards, were not going to be where Italian films were headed for the next few years. For Menichelli, the film opened new horizons and a new public persona.
She was now a star, a diva, but more: a diva with a darker image that, whether she liked it or not, would grow even more intense with Pastrone’s next film. It would be another “art film,” but not as small — and far more disturbing than Il fuoco. It would be a film that would have audiences comparing Pina Menichelli no longer to Borelli or Bertini or anyone else, Tigre Reale.
For Further Reading: 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).- Martinelli, Vittorio, Pina Menichelli, Le sfumature del fascino, Bulzoni Editore, Rome, 2002. Softcover. 130pp. In Italian.