In the world of the silent screen Italian actress Pina Menichelli was a superstar, a diva, a femme fatale. In other words she is a legend of an often forgotten art form.
The first silent Italian film I ever saw was the classic Cabiria (1914) directed by Giovanni Pastrone with title cards written by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Since it’s close to 3 hours long and set primarily in the ancient city of Carthage, Cabiria offers a good test to determine just how long you can go without any spoken dialogue, but with lots of toga costumes.
While Pina was already an actress with the Cines production studio in Rome, Pastrone noticed her talent and invited her to move to Itala Films in Turin. It was here that she would rise to the status of Diva. In her first film with Pastrone, Il fuoco (1915), Pina plays a decadent female poet whose powers of seduction ignite an all-consuming passion in a poor painter. With her contorted movements and sensually sinister curled smile Pina became known for a uniquely passionate acting style.
In Tigre reale (1916),based on a story by Giovanni Verga, Pina’s fascinating allure continued to entice viewers and she became known as a true femme fatale. Over a period of 3 years at the height of her career Pina made over 40 films.
Pina’s life story reads like a work of fiction crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter. She was born Giuseppa Iolanda Menichelli in 1890 to travelling Sicilian actors. Her first marriage ended in separation, but her husband refused her an annulment. It was only after his death that she married her second husband Baron Carlo D’Amato who was the founder of the studio where she worked. While Pina retired from the screen relatively early in 1924, she passed away several decades later in 1984.
Since The Artist, a movie with almost no spoken dialogue, swept up several Academy Awards at the Oscars, we have begun to remember the silent screen and the actors and directors who made it great. Cast as an impulsive femme fatale who left a trail of broken men in her wake, Pina represents the dramatic flair and striking beauty of Italy’s contribution to early cinema. Stars might have been born in Hollywood, but it’s Italy that gave birth to divas.