The Italian Almanac

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Mariangela Melato

Goodbye Mariangela

Italian star of stage and screen Mariangela Melato died of cancer at a clinic in Rome at the age of 71.

Melato was best known for a 1970s socially conscious comedy about a fractious but eventually romantic seaborne interlude between representatives of Italy's highest and lowest classes, which was unsuccessfully remade by American superstar singer and actress Madonna in 2002. The Milanese-born Melato, who had a wide dramatic and comic range, was popular on Italian TV until recently.

Her 1974 portrayal of an aristocratic Milan socialite marooned with a Communist sailor played by frequent onscreen partner Giancarlo Giannini gained her international fame. The Lina Wertmuller film, entitled Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, was remade by Madonna and then husband Guy Ritchie in 2002 as Swept Away, a critical and commercial dud.

Born in Milan in 1941, the hugely versatile Melato interpreted a range of characters on stage and on the big and small screens over the course of her long career, working with directors of the calibre of Luca Ronconi, Mario Monicelli, Luchino Visconti and Dario Fo as well as Wertmuller, whose Swept Away was one of three hugely successful comedies with her and Giannini.

She made her cinema debut in 1969 in Thomas by Pupi Avati but rose to fame three years later with her interpretation of co-star Giannini's Milanese lover Fiore in Wertmuller's The Seduction of Mimi, massive hit in Italy. Her theatrical successes include Orlando Furioso, Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia and What Maisie Knew based on the novel by Henry James, all directed by Ronconi. Melato's small-screen performances date mostly to the last two decades, most recently in Rebecca, The First Wife (2008) directed by Riccardo Milani, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, and in the television adaptation of great Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo's classic Filumena Marturano (2010), which was screened most recently on New Year's Day.

Singer and actor Renzo Arbore, Melato's partner, paid homage to her fight against the disease, saying that she had displayed the same "intelligence, determination and courage that characterised her entire life and artistic commitment". Lina Wertmuller, director of the internationally successful 1974 film Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny described the actress as "beautiful, pure, noble".

Tributes poured in from the political and cultural establishment, with President Giorgio Napolitano describing her as "one of the most popular actresses for her marked talent, which she demonstrated with willpower and enthusiasm until the end". Italian Culture Minister Lorenzo Ornaghi said, "Mariangela Melato was one of the most valid interpreters of Italian show business in the second half of the 20th century, an eclectic artist with great sensibility who succeeded in bringing an original touch to both stage and screen".

"All the parts I gave her were a challenge," said Luca Ronconi, one of the directors with whom Milan-born Melato worked most closely during her illustrious career. "She overcame them all."

Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini, 70, reminisced "I spent many a night and many a day with Melato and (director) Lina Wertmuller. We were a trio. Mariangela had great humanity, and she was also very fragile. She was an incredibly skilled actress. Her timing and her rhythms were perfect. I became a spectator of her artistry. She was never a diva. She had the right elegance and the right skill for the theater as well".

Melato received much praise for her role as Giannini's Milanese mistress in The Seduction of Mimi (1972), directed by Lina Wertmueller. This was to be the start of a successful working relationship with the director, who cast Melato and Giannini as the leads in her next film, Love and Anarchy (1973), in which Melato plays an anarchic prostitute.

"She was not only a great actress, she was also a woman who faced life's problems with a lot of strength," Giannini went on. "And if you were the one with the problem, she knew how to inspire you with her own tenacity. As a woman she was full of energy, incredibly intelligent, beautiful and sexy".

Wertmueller paired the popular duo in a third film, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974). Why did this film become such a cult? "Because it tells the story of a beautiful experience," Giannini said, "of two people who start out hating each other, and who find themselves thrown into contact with nature and the infinite, with the immediacy of life. They find themselves as just a man and just a woman, owning a world that is entirely their own".