Though she’s not quite the household name that her contemporaries Anna Magnani and Alida Valli are, Italian actress Valentina Cortese had an impressive career both on screen and on stage. Besides her romantic and professional relationship with Italian theater legend Giorgio Strehler, she worked with such film luminaries as Robert Wise, Jules Dassin, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Terry Gilliam, William Dieterle — as well as Fellini, Antonioni and Truffaut — even garnering an Oscar nomination for her supporting part as an alcoholic and aging actress in Truffaut’s Day for Night.
Italian director Francesco Patierno pays homage to her life, talent and those she inspired in the delightful documentary Diva!, in which eight contemporary Italian actresses are asked to act out fragments from Cortese’s own autobiography. The result, which contains a lot of archive footage as well, is both an impressive acting showcase for the likes of Barbora Bobulova, Isabella Ferari and Anita Caprioli and a tribute to the talent and incredible life story one of the few legends of il cinema italiano who is still alive today.
“It’s easy to win an Oscar if Valentina Cortese is involved,” Truffaut reportedly said after winning the best foreign-language Oscar in 1974 for Day for Night, and the doc starts with that film and perhaps her most famous performance. Actress Anna Foglietta (Perfect Strangers) kicks off the proceedings as she delivers the first of the monologues, lifted verbatim from Cortese’s 2012 autobiography Quanti sono i domani passati (a poetic title that roughly translates as “How Many Tomorrows Have Passed”).
Perhaps inspired by the title of Cortese’s tome, the film then goes back into the past in roughly reverse chronological order until Ferrari (Quiet Chaos) evokes Cortese’s childhood. Though she practically never saw her estranged, concert-pianist mother, the actress has very fond memories of growing up poor but happy with her foster parents in the countryside of Lombardy, in the north or Italy.
Patierno’s choice to move backwards in time has several advantages, the most obvious being that the titular diva becomes less and less legend-like as the story unfolds. This means the director and his actresses are able to distill, along the way, a purer form of Cortese, who is increasingly unburdened by her fame and high-profile status until she’s a debutante and finally, a child. (To what extent all this is influenced by the fact Cortese wrote all of this with the benefit of hindsight is, of course, up for debate.) It also offers Patierno the distinct advantage of not having to discuss most of Cortese’s output from the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s, two decades in which her onscreen roles rarely matched her talent.
Short clips from her films are often used to illustrate the monologues, but besides the features she discusses, the descriptions of events from her life are also frequently matched with clips from her large body of work that might be tangentially related to what she is describing. So when Cortese, through one of the actresses, recalls a phone call she made in real life, a clip from a random film might show her being on the telephone. This means that audiences will not hear a peep about what it was like to work with Gilliam, but we do get a brief glimpse of his 1988 folly The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which Cortese played the Queen of the Moon.
The film, which was also written by Patierno, finds a good balance between professional and private anecdotes, with several episodes, including her supposed discovery of Audrey Hepburn while casting Secret People, treated in quite some detail. People like Strehler, who really mattered to Cortese, also get adequate time, but a film that runs only 75 minutes can of course not include everything, so the director, for example, has to omit the juicy details of her strained relationship with Fellini, whose wife was her co-star in Juliet of the Spirits. Perhaps the most famous anecdote in her autobiography, about a debauched sex party at producer Darryl Zanuck’s home, is included and recounted here by Bobulova (In Love and War) in one of the film’s most impressively restrained moments. However, it is not immediately clear from the doc itself that her objections to what was happening led to the premature end of her studio contract with Fox, allowing her to come back to Europe.
Not all of Patierno’s choices make sense, especially a few unnecessary musical interludes, set to a modern score by The Spectrum. But overall, this is a refreshingly different kind of biographical documentary, which uses not only the expected archive footage but also allows other actresses to help tell the story of one of their most famous and talented colleagues. Shot against elegant but simple backdrops and decked out in gala dresses, the thespians thankfully don’t try to imitate Cortese’s style or voice, instead concentrating on just getting the story across.
Production companies: Do Production, Casta Diva Pictures, Fenix, Viva Production
Cast: Barbora Bobulova, Anita Caprioli, Carolina Crescentini, Silvia d’Amico, Isabella Ferrari, Anna Foglietta, Carolina Natoli, Greta Scarano, Michele Riondino
Writer-director: Francesco Patierno
Producers: Daniele Orazi, Andrea De Micheli, Luca Oddo
Director of photography: Michele D’Attanasio
Production designer: Paki Meduri
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Maria Fantastica Valmori
Music: The Spectrum
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
In Italian, English, French