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Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Timeless Talent of Stefania Sandrelli

On screen since the tender age of 14, she has captivated audiences for more than 50 years with a compelling combination of strength and vulnerability.

She achieved stardom at just 14 years old playing the angelic cousin of a love-struck Marcello Mastroianni in Pietro Germi’s “Divorce Italian Style.” More than half a century later, she is still going strong and remains one of Italy’s most esteemed actors.

Stefania Sandrelli was born on June 5, 1946, in Viareggio in the province of Lucca in northern Italy. As a child, she studied music and dance. Then in 1960, she won a beauty pageant and was featured on the cover of Le Ore magazine. Her purity captivated the country and shortly thereafter, movie offers began pouring in. Just one year later, she made her cinema debut in three feature films: Mario Sequi’s Gioventù di notte, Luciano Salce’s The Fascist and Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style. She instantly became a star and before long was a key figure in Italy’s legendary commedia all’italiana. In 1963, she teamed up again with director Pietro Germi to portray Agnese in Seduced and Abandoned, a masterpiece of the genre.

The film boasts an unforgettable opening scene with a stunning Sandrelli in a fitted black dress walking through the narrow streets of her enchanting Sicilian village. As she heads to confession, a Sicilian troubadour accompanied by the mandolin tells her unfortunate story of giving in to lustful feelings for her sister's fiancé, Peppino. Upon entering the confessional, she breaks down in tears as she describes the tryst, only to have the priest further shame her with words like wicked and disgraceful. Peppino announces that he doesn’t want to marry a girl who gave into temptation, even if it was to him, and flees with his mother. A chase ensues as the singing narrator describes Agnese’s father’s determination to change Peppino’s mind and save his daughter’s honor. Peppino refuses to relent, and the family lawyer instructs Agnese’s pushover brother Antonio on how to shoot Peppino in a way that would be easiest to defend in court. Agnese learns of the plan and stops the murder from happening at the last minute. Sandrelli delivers a subtle yet forceful performance, going full drama at the end.

One year later, Sandrelli starred in Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well. In her role as Adriana Astarelli, a free-spirited starlet trying to make it in Rome’s unforgiving movie business, she revealed her fierce acting chops while portraying a complex character in a leading role. She propels the film forward with contradicting qualities of vulnerability and strength toward a devastating, unpredictable ending. Qualities of Adriana reappeared in many characters throughout her career. She often portrays strong-yet-vulnerable women struggling with male characters who mistake that vulnerability for weakness.

In 1970, she took on another career-defining role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Sandrelli plays the wife of Marcello, a state employee of the fascist party ordered to murder a political rival and former professor. The film is set in Rome and Paris during Benito Mussolini’s reign. Known for its monumental cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, the film’s eerie atmosphere is accentuated with splashes of Storaro’s signature shades of reds, blues and oranges. In a film of pure visual decadence, Sandrelli revels in her character’s innocence and Bourgeoisie lifestyle, which Marcello denounces for its petty thoughts and ambitions. Even so, she holds her own, living in his world of intellectuals where everyone has a dark secret.

Since those prolific decades of the ’60s and ’70s, Sandrelli has appeared in numerous contemporary hits, including Bertolucci’s 1996 Stealing Beauty, Gabriele Muccino’s 2000 The Last Kiss, and various Italian television series.

All the films mentioned are available through Amazon. All four films by Pietro Germi, Antonio Pietrangeli and Bernardo Bertolucci are available to stream on Filmstruck, an absolute treasure for old and rare films. Sandrelli's current release A casa tutti bene, directed by Gabriele Muccino, recently opened in Italy to rave reviews. In March, she will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at Italy's David Di Donatello ceremony.

- Jeannine Guilyard

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