6 August 2020

Marisa Merlini - actress

Fifties star who turned down Oscar-winning role


Marisa Merlini appeared in more than 100 films in a career spanning 60 years
Marisa Merlini appeared in more than 100 films
in a career spanning 60 years
The actress Marisa Merlini, whose sixty-year movie career was at its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, was born in Rome on this day in 1923. 

Although she had built a solid reputation in a string of movies as the foil to the comedic genius of Totó, the role with which Merlini is most often associated is the midwife Annarella in Luigi Comencini’s 1953 romantic comedy Pane, amore e fantasia - Bread, Love and Dreams - which presented an idyllic view of Italian rural life.

She starred opposite Vittorio De Sica, who played an amorous policeman who woos Merlini’s character after being snubbed by the beautiful farm girl played by Gina Lollobrigida. The movie won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Merlini’s performance was hailed by both audiences and critics, bringing many offers to play similar characters. 

Merlini and De Sica were paired again in Antonio Racciopi’s comedy Tempo di villeggiatura (1956), in which her performance as a downcast tourist won her Italy’s Silver Ribbon as Best Supporting Actress.

Merlini starred with Vittorio De Sica (right) in Tempo di Villeggiatura in 1956
Merlini starred with Vittorio De Sica (right) in
Tempo di Villeggiatura in 1956
De Sica was impressed with Merlini’s acting skills and when he turned to directing he had her earmarked for the part of Cesira, the widowed shopkeeper in La Ciociara, the 1960 wartime drama based on Alberto Moravia’s novel Two Women.

It was a chance for Merlini to break free of her comedy typecasting and prove herself as a serious actress. Yet she turned down the role, deciding that at 36 she was not yet ready to play older women. The part instead went to Sophia Loren, whose portrayal of Cesira won her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Marisa Merlin, to use her birth name, grew up as one of five children in a middle-class family in the Monteverde Vecchio district of Rome and attended drama school as a girl. Her parents split up, however, and her father’s departure from the family home meant she had to work to help her mother support the family. At 17, she took a job on the perfume counter of a department school.

As luck would have it, she found her way on to the stage by another route, taken on as a showgirl in revues fronted by the comedian Erminio Macaro, whose wife, Mariuccia, was a customer at her perfume counter and noted her good looks and pin-up figure.  Her costume was little more than two strategically-placed fig leaves, yet each show made her 130 lire - as much as she earned in a month as a shop assistant.

Sophia Loren won an Oscar for her performance in La Ciociara
Sophia Loren won an Oscar for her
performance in La Ciociara
The big screen soon beckoned and in 1942 she made her movie debut in Stasera niente di nuovo - Tonight nothing is new - a 1942 drama film directed by Mario Mattoli and starring Alida Valli.

Back in the world of revue she met Totó, the comic actor with whom she made several films, including Comencini’s L’imperatore di Capri (1949), in which she played a German baroness.  She also became close friends with another Roman actress, Anna Magnani.

The fifties saw her popularity soar, with more plum roles. As well as her successes opposite Totó and De Sica, in 1957 she appeared with Marcello Mastroianni in Monicelli’s Padri e figli - Fathers and Sons - and in 1960 was Alberto Sordi’s wife in Il vigile - The Policeman - directed by Luigi Zampa.

After her decision not to take the part in La Ciociara, Merlini’s career stalled. Her appearance in Dino Risi’s 1963 comedy I mostri - The Monsters - preceded a fallow period of few meaningful roles until she was asked in 1970 to play Lady Hamilton’s Neapolitan governess in the first production of Terence Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation at The Haymarket theatre in London, an unexpected opportunity that Merlini accepted, despite not speaking English.

The play ran for a year and after returning to Italy, she appeared thereafter on stage and in television dramas alongside her film work. Her final screen role was in Pupi Avati’s La seconda notte delle nozze in 2005, by which time her film credits exceeded 100 movies.

She died at her home near Piazza Vescovio in Rome in 2008 at the age of 84, the funeral taking place at the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto in the Campo Marzio district.

The Villa Pamphili in the Monteverde Vecchio district is part of the biggest public park in Rome
The Villa Pamphili in the Monteverde Vecchio
district is part of the biggest public park in Rome
Travel tip:

Monteverde Vecchio, where Merlini grew up, forms half of the Monteverde residential district just outside the centre of Rome located south of the Janiculum hill and southwest of Trastevere.  Consisting mainly of early 20th century stately villas, the area is the home of the Villa Doria Pamphili, which used to be private property of the Pamphili family, but is now a public park, the largest in Rome.  The American University of Rome and the American Academy in Rome are also located in the neighbourhood. 

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo
The Basilica of Santa Maria in
Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo
Travel tip:

The church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, where Merlini’s funeral was held, is in the Rione Campo Marzio and stands in Piazza del Popolo, between Via del Corso and Via del Babuino. Also known as the Church of the Artists, it was built in 1662 to an original design by Carlo Rainaldi. After an interruption due to the death of the Pope, work resumed in 1673 under the supervision of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the cooperation of Carlo Fontana and was finished in 1679, except for a belfry that was added in the 18th century.  The statues of saints on the exterior have been attributed to Bernini's design.  In August 1904, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was ordained a priest at the church. 

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