Foreign films are a guilty pleasure in my household. Among them are some of the greats Ameile, Cinema Paradiso, 8 ½, and II Gattopardo (The Leopard). The last two films mentioned above are sentimental to me, not only because they are award winning classics, but because they introduced me to one of my favourite International actresses, the Italian screen goddess Claudia Cardinale.
Born in Tunisia on April 15, 1938, to French and Silican parents, Claudia Cardinale was destined to be someone else ( a school teacher) and never set out to become an actress. She was discovered after she unintentionally won a beauty contest in Tunisa in 1957 and the prize was a trip to the Venice film festival. Apparently, she was pushed out onto the stage and the rest they say is history.
From very early on in her career she was surrounded by some of Europe’s great film makers such as Fellini, Leone and Visconti. She also bumped shoulders with many of the greats. Everyone just simply wanted be around her, including actors like Marlon Brando, who seemingly tried to seduce her, but was politely told to “get lost”. It’s not to say she wasn’t flattered by the attention. For instance, Cardinale has very fond memories of making The Pink Panther (1963) along side Peter Sellers and David Niven. Of her co-star Niven she said: “David Niven, when he saw me, said, ‘Claudia, [besides] spaghetti, you’re the best invention of Italy.”
Once considered Italy’s answer to Brigitte Bardot, she has survived 60 years in an industry that wasn’t always kind to women. Cardinale first made her screen debut in Goha, a beautifully made French film, shot in Tunisia in 1958. It was a minor role which led to a string of supporting roles throughout the late 50s. Her first significant contract strictly controlled her career and life. She was linked in the late 1950s to her producer and later husband, Franco Cristaldi (fourteen years her senior), who placed many restrictions upon Claudia. She was forbiddenher to cut her hair, she wasn’t allowed to put on weight and all her movies were specifically chosen by Cristaldi. Arguably her greatest indignity came when she was forced by Cristaldi to tell the world’s media that her son Patrick, which she gave birth to in her late teens after a terrible relationship with a mysteries older Frenchman, was her younger brother. Cristaldi also made the decision to send her infant son away to live with her family. Claudia wouldn’t reveal this secret until many years later in 1967.
Throughout all her ordeals she has carried herself with grace and modesty for the whole of her life. To her credit after nine years of marriage, Claudia would eventually escape the domineering clutches of her former husband in 1975. After her divorce Claudia fell in love with filmmaker Pasquale Squitieri. (Their romance is often described as one of the most passionate love stories of Italian cinema.) Interestingly, while they had a daughter together (called Claudia), the couple never married at the insisted of Cardinale who instead revelled in her new-found independence.
She once said that “cinema saved her life” and had given her a reason to aspire to greater things and help those in need, particular young women. She has been quoted as saying that: “…it is with passion and dedication that I will be attentive to the needs of women and fight relentlessly for their rights.”
This is no more evident than her work that she does as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Defense of Women’s Rights. She is also a political liberal who has fought for feminist ideals and gay rights.
Today Cardinale is a veteran of over 140 movies predominately European and a handful of notable Hollywood films. Choosing to align herself with European cinema was a strategic move because of Cardinale’s general dislike of the Hollywood system. She once said, “I don’t like the star system. I am a normal person. I like to live in Europe. I mean I have been going to Hollywood many, many times but I don’t want to sign a contract.”
Without any further ado, here is what I believe are Claudia Cardinale’s ten best films. Enjoy!
10. A Girl in Australia (1971).
Many of Cardinale’s early films went a long way to cement her status as an iconic sex symbol of the 1960s. (Three notable films absent from this list but worthy of a mention for their exploitation value are Cartouche (1962), The Professionals (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) with Tony Curtis.) But more was to come with spectacular performances in an array of films in the 70s and 80s which further established her status as one of the greatest Italian actresses of all time. One such performance arrived fully formed in Luigi Zampa’s mail-order-bride comedy A Girl in Australia (1971), which earned Cardinale a Best Actress award at the Italian equivalent of the Academy awards at the David di Donatello Awards.
Filmed entirely on location in Australia with an all-Italian cast and crew, A Girl in Australia is a rare classic that occasionally still surfaces on You Tube. In the Italian comedy, Amedeo (Alberto Sordi) the male protagonist in the film has lived in Australia for twenty years. He is a shy hardworking telephone linesman who dreams of getting married but cannot find himself a suitable wife. So he looks to the motherland and arranges for one by mail. Enter Carmela (Claudia Cardinale) a beautiful Calabrian working girl on the run from her abusive pimp. In short, Sordi and Cardinale are both absolutely charming.
9. The Day of The Owl (1968).
Damiano Damiani’s violent crime drama The Day of The Owl (1968) tells the story of an Italian cop played by Franco Nero (pictured above) who heads to a small Sicilian town to investigate the murder of a construction worker. In his investigation he discovers the husband of Rosa Nicolosi (Cardinale) has gone missing. Everything points to a cover up involving the mafia and their influence over the town. Performance are solid all round, especially Cardinale who is perfect and sensual as Rosa, who is caught up in the middle between the police investigation and the glaring spotlight of the mafia, where silence is golden if you want to live longer.
8. Fitcarraldo (1982).
Very few actresses can boast starring in more than a hundred movies. When asked more recently in early 2023 which was Cardinale’s favourite film of all time, she replied, “My God, I’ve done some many, I don’t know which one I prefer. Maybe Once Upon a Time in the West, and then so many others.” Others include Werner Herzog’s epic adventure-drama Fitzcarraldo (1982) in which Cardinale co-stars as Molly, a brothel madam who funds Fitzcarraldo’s (Klaus Kinski) dream to build an opera house in the jungle. Apparently for years before her more recent comments, Fitzcarraldo was “the best adventure of her life”. It probably still is. In Fitcarraldo, Cardinale’s performance is absolutely stunning as she anchors the film as a woman of sound mind unlike the frantic machinations of Kinski and Herzog’s obsessive dream to make his Peruvian film. Despite its infamous troubled shoot, Fitzcarraldo is a rare gem in Cardinale’s long career which acts arguably as one of her last great films.
7. A Girl With A Suitcase (1961).
A select list of wonderful films from Cardinale’s career where her fiery determination, emotional vulnerability and screen intelligence shines through are wide and varied. Though a good place to start would be with Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase (1961) in which Cardinale gives a heartbreaking performance as a showgirl who becomes involved with two brothers. Cardinale plays as a spirited but naive young woman who meets a smooth-talking playboy, who tells her he’ll advance her aspiring ambition to become an actress. When he breaks her heart, the playboy’s young brother Lorenzo feels sorry for her and tries his best to make amends. In the process Aida (Cardinale) falls in love with Lorenzo but the strain of their age difference threatens to derail their romance.
6. Claretta (1984).
In a change of pace from the glut of spaghetti westerns out of Italy in the 1960s, Cardinale starred in two acclaimed Italian crime films during this period, I Guappi (Blood Brothers) (1974) and Il Prefetto di Ferro (The Iron Prefect) (1977), which became all the rage in the 1970s. These two films were made by the Italian film director Pasquale Squitieri, who would eventually became the love of Cardinale’s life. Film buffs might also be interested to know that Cardinale made nine films together with her love interest Squiteri between 1974 and 2011. The last was Father (2011) a mafia crime story set in Philadelphia. But arguably her best performance in any of Squiteri’s films was in the Italian historical drama Claretta (1984) in which Cardinale plays Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s mistress of 10 years. Cardinale’s strong performance in Claretta earned her the Nastro d’Argento for Best Actress. Controversial in its day, Squitieri’s denied his film Claretta (1984) was pro-facist. It was according to the director simply a story about the life and death of Claretta Petacci, who was caught in her own Greek tragedy.
5. La Ragazza di Bube (Bebo’s Girl) (1963).
In the year 1963, a string of films saw Cardinale immerse herself in an array of dramatic and comedic roles. In Blake Edwards’ comedy The Pink Panther Cardinale made her Hollywood debut; and on a more serious note she also co-starred in Fellini’s stylistic 8 1/2 and Visconti’s period drama II Gattopardo (The Leopard). Some believe these two films alone would have been enough to secure Cardinale’s place in movie history. But Cardinale wasn’t finished also starring in the same year in Luigi Comencini’s La Ragazza di Bube (Bebo’s Girl). In Bebo’s Girl Cardinale won her first Nastro d’Argento for Best Actress for her role as a young woman who falls in love with a partisan, who finds himself on the run after being involved in a double murder. In the ending she must decide whether to stand by him or move on with her life.
4. The Leopard (1963).
More than anything Cardinale loved working with Italian directors and it was an easy choice for her to collaborate with the likes of Fellini, Leone and especially Visconti who she adored. In total Cardinale appeared in four of Visconti’s films, Rocco and his Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Sandra (1965) and Conversation Piece (1974). Under his direction she transformed into a serious actress.
In II Gattopardo (The Leopard), with Burt Lancaster seen as the film’s most inspired casting decision, the same could be said of Cardinale who embodies every man’s dream in Visconti’s period drama set in the middle of the social upheavals of 1860s Sicily. In short, Cardinale is absolutely radiant as Angelica, the daughter of a bourgeois landowner. Her most important scenes come arguably in the films third act. The lengthy ballroom sequence comes to mind where Angelica asks Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Corner, Prince of Salina, to dance. After some hesitation he graciously accepts. It acts as the prelude to one of the most incredible ballroom sequences in film history that lasts 45 minutes. (Visconti rehearsed the lengthy ball sequence in The Leopard as if it was a stage play. It took some two weeks to carefully plan.)
3. Sandra (1963).
In Visconti’s Sandra (1963), Cardinale plays the title role, a young woman who returns home to plot her revenge against her mother and stepfather whom she believes betrayed her father who died at the hands of the Nazis. Central to this Italian melodrama also lies a dark secret which involves Sandra and her brother. The Village Voice’s Alan Schertuhl’s once said “Cardinale’s tear-blotted face (in Sandra) is Italy’s most beautiful ruin”. That said, it’s easy to see why Cardinale is so good in Sandra with her constant brooding and heartfelt anguish. It’s a grim film to watch but one that Cardinale excels in as a dramatic actress. One of her finest roles.
2. 8 1/2 (1963).
Cardinale has often said she felt very lucky to have worked with some of the greatest Italian auteurs of all time during her illustrious career. Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti for instance according to Cardinale were masters of their craft but polar opposites- Fellini was all about improvisation, where as with Visconti it was like theatre. In an interestingly tidbit of film trivia, Cardinale made Visconti’s The Leopard and Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the same time, flitting between movie sets in Rome and Sicily during the summer of 1962. (Image used above shows Cardinale and Fellini on set of 8 1/2 filmed in Rome.)
It’s fair to say when we talk about Fellini we often associate him with 8 1/2 (1963) his elegant and stylish black and white masterpiece. The connection between 8 1/2 and Cardinale for the purposes of this list is obvious. Cardinale is the film’s female protagonist. Fellini cast Cardinale because he thought of her as his muse. She gave him inspiration. In 8 1/2 Cardinale elegantly plays a version of herself – as an ideal women chased by Marcello Mastroianni’s onscreen character Guido, the film’s hero and protagonist.
While there is so much I’d like to say about Cardinale’s performance in 8 1/2, how about I instead leave the final word to ACMI film curator Roberta Ciabarra, who once said: “Cardinale’s incandescent performance in Fellini’s 8 ½ – her face, voice and luminous presence – are like a current that runs through some of the most important films to come out of 1960s Italian cinema.”
1. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).
Still on the subject of Italian directors, Cardinale also had a wonderful working relationship with celebrated Spaghetti-Western auteur Sergio Leone on his film Once Upon A Time In The West. In arguably her finest screen moment, Leone introduces Cardinale’s character Jill McBain at Flagstone train station in his epic western. Standing all alone seemingly perplexed as to why her husband has not arrived to meet her, she makes her way out of the station and into the town. Here Leone creates one of the single best shots ever filmed as the camera rises high over the station and follows Jill through the town accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s incredible film score.
Interestingly, on the US one-sheet poster for the film (illustration by Frank McCarthy), it has this wonderful catchy tagline that says, “There were three men in her life. One to take her…one to love her – and one to kill her.” While catchphrases like this are occasionally misleading, this one isn’t far from the truth. That said, Cardinale plays a widow who refuses to cowed by men even with the threat of physical and sexual violence. It’s also fair to say Cardinale’s role as Jill is in almost every practical sense a feminist triumph, something Cardinale would have relished at the time. She’s also the film’s central character, the moral compass and conduit we witness the awful deeds of men in Leone’s Wild West.
A well-researched and beautifully-written piece about an actress I don’t know very much about. I’ve seen only a few of her American films, but I watched some of “A Girl in Australia” you shared in this post. She was always radiant in every one of her films.