In 1918, Itala-Film released a film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Femme de Claude (1873), a play which updated the Messalina myth to 19th century France. The wife of Claudius, the legendary monstrous feminine – just what kind of woman is she, here in 1910s Italy? To the opening credits:
Hmm. In case you didn’t get that subtle visual metaphor, an opening intertitle spells it out:
That’s a lot of responsibility. Who can you call in such a situation? There is only one answer: Pina Menichelli.
Claudio Ruper is an inventor, simply wanting to do his patriotic duty for France and contribute to the war effort by creating a new, powerful cannon—work that is, of course, of great interest to foreign spies. Claude’s wife Cesarina, however, is unstoppable—cutting a swathe through the men in her path, putting not just those around her at risk, but the very nation. Her feminine depravity is underlined by her coldness at the death of her illegitimate son, who had been cared for by a peasant couple; when Claudio initially finds out about the child, Cesarina’s reaction is frenzied, but after he leaves the room, a mocking calm descends over her as she shrugs things off. Later, when the child has died, Claudio is not appeased by Cesarina’s pragmatism. My Italian isn’t great, but the film seems to be implying that the child was a product of rape; if so, that adds another dimension to the situation. Well, potential dimension, since Menichelli is characterized firmly as destructive feminine force, rather than a tragic figure. It’s a truism to say that the femme fatale/vamp archetypes are based on male fears of female sexuality, but La moglie di Claudio is one of the clearest distillations of that idea. The imagery of guns and weaponry in the film only serve to reinforce the idea of combat between the sexes, or more broadly, between the uninhibited woman and society at large.
The plot proceeds among relatively well-worn lines, but one interesting element is the subplot of Daniele and his daughter Rebecca, Jews who have Zionist ambitions: “Jews should no longer be only a group, but a people; more than a people, a nation!” This strikes me as quite advanced for the time! However, it’s worth noting that, although obviously a strongly Catholic nation, Italy had a Jewish head of state for a brief period in the early 1910s.
Dumas fils‘ play La Femme de Claude does not seem to be prominent among his works now, but would have been reasonably known at the time; especially in Italy, I would assume, due to the connections with Roman history and the fact that the role of Cesarina had been portrayed on stage by Eleonora Duse. Googling around, I found the following précis of the plot, from the Los Angeles Herald of 05 May 1901:
In “La Femme de Claude” a portrayal is given of an ideal artist who married a woman who is not at all suited to him, being unsympathetic with his work. The result is a clash and he kills her. Here we have a solution which does not solve.
Oops, spoiler alert! But I think it is obvious that the film is heading to a tragic conclusion – it’s up to Menichelli to make us enjoy the ride.
Menichelli: a prime example of the excessive woman
Pina Menichelli’s on-screen charisma is incredible, electrifying. She slinks through the film like a leopard, acting with a full-bodied voluptuousness of gesture that is both alluring and erotic, and has a strangely feral edge. She always insists on the physical presence of both her body and her gaze. Consider the following:
There’s a split-second in there where she appears to break the fourth wall. But more than that, I find the way she plays to the camera fascinating: you can’t look elsewhere, and you don’t want to. ‘Embodied’ is the word I keep coming back to. I singled out a similar instance in my post on Il Fuoco (1915), but look at the way Menichelli draws her shawl around herself here, emphasizing her body and clothing in space.
And her body language as she falls to the ground in a later scene is incredible. The twist of her body, her left hand clasped to her head, the roll of her head as her right arm straightens.
It’s not all emphatic gesture, though. Sometimes Pina’s approach is more muted, relying on the power of her gaze alone, as in this scene where she is interacting with Antonino.
Menichelli’s performance generally cannot be considered subtle, but for me, this is a strength rather than a weakness. She clearly relishes her role, playing it to the hilt and creating something captivating. As Stella Dagna writes in the Cinema Ritrovato catalogue for 2012, it’s a performance “that captures the excesses but also the hypnotic and erotic power of what Dalí defined as ‘hysterical cinema’.”
The diva criteria
La moglie di Claudio is pure, unadulterated Pina, and undoubtedly an important contribution to diva filmdom. I’ve covered Pina’s screen presence above; now let’s look at the other important elements of Italian diva films.
Copious costume changes. I counted around 10, or almost one every seven minutes: respectable. In this film, Menichelli is heavy on the dramatic black, although there is decent dress diversity: here are some key looks.
Headwear that borders on the avant-garde. Clock this ‘glam nun’ getup:
A veiled diva. No, but in a couple of scenes Pina appears to be wearing a curtain, which is like a veil for a window … okay, I’m reaching. But the dress, which appears to be velvet, really does have tassels and fringing.
A necklace of notable length. Present! Worn over the shoulders, for that certain je ne sais quoi.
Symbolic naming. Present. Pina Menichelli’s character is named Cesarina (i.e., the female Caesar), her husband is Claudio (Claudius), and she is described as a “modern-day Messalina“. This is all, of course, per the Dumas play, which used the legend of Messalina as a motif for his story. As described at this webpage, Claude Ruper “embodies the French patriotic conscience wounded by the defeat at the Battle of Sedan, and who is relentlessly working to restore his country. In contrast, Césarine, his wife, is a totally corrupt creature on all levels; she will end up selling the work of her husband to the enemy.”
Mirrors. Frequently seen in the interiors, but not a significant element of the film. The main usage is in this shot of Rebecca.
A dramatic scene involving flowers. One of the best. In the party scene which opens the film:
Cesarina hands the flower off to one of her admirers, who lifts it to his nose and smells it, looking paralyzed with adoration.
Feminine sufferances. Being the unstoppable embodiment of dangerous female sexuality.
Men with unusual hair. Not really, but I thought Antonino (Alberto Nepoti)’s centre part was quite majestic.
La moglie di Claudio was restored in 2011 by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin (the home of production company Itala-Film), and the Cineteca di Bologna. The film runs at 18fps, and 1437m of the original 1789m survives, with gaps being indicated by 10 black frames. The source for the restoration (and the only known copy of the film) came from a tinted nitrate positive in the collection of Lobster Films in Paris: this print was a 1920s French reissue distributed by Vitagraph’s Parisian branch.
This print had French intertitles, but rather than back-translating, the MNC reconstructed Italian intertitles from the censorship records and lists of captions held by the MNC. I would be interested to know how the French intertitles compare to the (reconstructed) Italian intertitles – whether there were fewer/more, or if the content differed for a French audience.
Fragments of distribution history
This film isn’t mentioned in any source I have access to, even Angela Dalle Vacche’s book dedicated to diva films. In fact, Dalle Vacche states that after Menichelli and Pastrone’s successes with Il Fuoco (1915) and Tigre Reale (1916), Menichelli abandoned femme fatale roles. While the MNC restoration is recent, La moglie has evidently been available in some form for a long time, since clips from it were used in documentaries such as Bertini l’ultima diva (1982), so it strikes me as strange that Dalle Vacche omits mention of it. In any case, a title such as ‘The Wife of Claudius’ is rather a tip-off.
Aside from the adverts presented above, I’ve found La moglie di Claudio mentioned in several newspapers. Turin newspaper La Stampa published a dramatic piece about it on the 27th of December, calling it “a grand triumph for a supple and wise actress who animates every gesture and look with passion and profound significance. […] In scenes of deception, in those of seduction, in the hatred that breaks out of her after a long and devious treachery: Pina Menichelli is superb and gave chills to the audience.” And here’s a short mention in the La Stampa edition of 03 January 1919, again in the Cronaca Cittadina (‘Town Chronicles’) section, announcing the last two days of the film being screened at the Salone Ghersi.
La moglie premiered in Rome on 06 December 1918, but wasn’t shown in France for a full year after that. Per Parisian newspapers La Rampe and Le Gaulois, in the third week of December 1919, the film was showing in Paris at the Grand Cinéma Saint-Paul, located not so far from the Bastille (the site of the cinema is now a wine shop).
Later, La moglie also made it to North Africa: here’s an advert from L’Echo d’Alger of 30 March 1921.
In summary: As a film, it’s not amazing, but as a showcase of Pina, it’s fantastic. Is Menichellismo a word? It should be.
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La moglie di Claudio [The Wife of Claudius]. Dir. Gero Zambuto. Torino: Itala-Film, 1918. The film is made available by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Turin) here on Vimeo.