Rediscovering an Icon

She appeared on screen with Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn; starred in films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and François Truffaut; and imbued every character she played with her native intelligence and elegance. Now, at the age 95, her fascinating life both on and off the screen is the subject of a new documentary by an Italian filmmaker.

Born in Milan on New Year’s Day 1923, Valentina Cortese was placed in the care of another family by her mother, an up and-coming musician who didn’t want the birth revealed. A childhood spent among the “marvelous, strong people” of a farming community in Lombardia sets the stage for a stellar career in Francesco Patierno’s documentary “Diva!” The film made its North American premiere last month at Lincoln Center’s “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.” Cortese describes her upbringing as “poor but warm,” and those formative years shaped the independent, honest woman she became.

Although she seldomly saw her real mother, she says that she understands why she couldn’t raise her. Francesco Patierno’s movie is based on Cortese’s autobiographical book, “Quanti sono i domani passati” (How Many Yesterdays Have Passed). The film is a marvelous marriage of the old and new, alternating vintage film clips and archival footage with book exerpts read by contemporary Italian actresses and one actor.  Among the many facets of Cortese’s bejeweled career, Patierno touches on Cortese’s nine-year marriage to American actor Richard Basehart and her influence on the early days of Audrey Hepburn’s career. The Neapolitan-born director admits that he set out to do a documentary about an old way of doing films but instead found an actress who was in fact very modern. He discovered someone who could “bring her tormented life to the big screen and always turn it into a great emotion. She is a courageous actress with a great personality.”

Spotlighted in the documentary is the story of her renowned role in François Truffaut’s 1974 “Day for light,” which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and why she found the director’s acceptance speech so heartbreaking. We also learn about Cortese’s arrival in Hollywood, how she assimilated into a very different way of life and her motivation behind signing a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox.

How she came to work in Jules Dassin’s 1949 film “Thieves’ Highway” and a chilling account of visiting him at home also are revealed.  “Thieves’ Highway” is a beautiful, nostalgic step back in time. Shot in the late 1940s, the film immerses itself in a typical American neighborhood of that era. It opens on an immigrant family living the American Dream but descends into tragedy as a business deal goes terribly wrong. When a determined son, Nick Garcos, seeks revenge for his father’s suspicious accident, he nearly gets taken by the same conman. Cortese plays Rica, a tough but good-hearted woman who falls in love with Nick, played brilliantly by Richard Conte. The two have strong chemistry and their scenes together are intense. The film delves into the hard lives of the period’s so-called long-haul boys, truckers who drove through the night to deliver shipments to markets across America.

In Luis García Berlanga’s 1956 Spanish comedy, “The Rocket from Calabuch,” Cortese plays Eloisa, a kind-hearted school teacher. Though her character is simply dressed and modest, Cortese’s natural elegance shines through. Scenes shot along the sea bring out her natural Mediterranean beauty. Eloisa falls in love with the mischievous Langosta, a trumpet-playing prisoner cleverly played by the beloved Italian character actor Franco Fabrizi. “The Rocket from Calabuch” is a hilarious, feel-good story of bonds that can never be broken.

“Theives’ Highway” and “The Rocket from Calabuch” are currently available to stream on FilmStruck. “Thieves’ Highway” will expire on July 21. Many of Cortese’s works are also available on Amazon.

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