THE LEOPARDESS: Claudia Cardinale & Alberto Moravia

vor 4 years

Claudia Cardinale was one of the great 1960s Italian film stars. It is little known that her biography is marked by violence, repression, and a consuming fight for independence.

Here, an homage and an excerpt from A Somewhat Unusual Conversation between the iconic film star, Cardinale, and an iconic writer, Moravia, taken from our Spring / Summer 2020 print issue of Fräulein:

There is a scene in Federico Fellini’s film in which Claudia Cardinale enters a cinema. Lead actor Marcello Mastroianni sits in the audience. He turns, blinded by her appearance, which, illuminated by the light of the film projection, seems supernatural, gets up, rushes towards her, and rapturously exclaims: Claudia!

is a film about a film, a meta-artwork. Like Mastroianni, millions of spectators were spellbound as they gazed at the screen, and there, in the light, Cardinale appeared. A shy, beguiling, innocent being – such is the illusion. But Claudia Cardinal never wanted to be the object of other’s desires, never wanted to serve the appetites and longings of the men who worshiped her like a saint. She didn’t come to the movies by vocation; she was driven there. She was on the run. The cinema was her exile.

This seemingly archetypal Italian woman was an immigrant with an incredibly diverse biography. Claude Joséphine Rose Cardinale was born in Tunisia, then a French protectorate, in 1938. Her parents had Sicilian roots, Cardinale’s mother tongue is Sicilian. As a child, she spoke French and Arabic, only later did she learn High Italian. She won a beauty contest in Tunisia in 1957 and was allowed to travel to the Cannes Film Festival, where she was discovered by her future partner, producer Franco Cristaldi. But Cardinale wasn’t ready yet, and fled back to Tunis.

There something happened that Claudia Cardinale would only talk about decades later. A man raped her and got her pregnant. She fled again, with her family, this time to Rome. She took on smaller roles, her image being that of the young temptress. She hid her pregnancy until the seventh month. In the last of these movies, she wears full dresses, always slightly turning away from the camera. When the child was born, it was alleged to be Cardinal’s little brother. For more than ten years, it remained a secret. Only in an autobiography does she talk about the rape.

Claudia Cardinale has long since become a celebrated star of world cinema, one of the great Italian divas, through films such as Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard , Fellini’s , or Sergio Leone’s classic western Once Upon a Time in the West .

She had to fight to become more than just a pretty face. Directors told her that her voice was too peculiar, too foreign. So, they synchronized her lines. Only when she became famous was she finally allowed to speak. The audience was spellbound by her singing. Unlike many great actresses of her generation, Claudia Cardinale seemed to be ahead of her time in her self-image as a woman. In Cartouche , bandit Jean-Paul Belmondo is bewitched by her. She dances for him and he asks, full of machismo, “Can you cook?” Cardinale replies, “Yes, darling. Walk on my hands, dance on the rope, play the violin, and train the goats. ” Belmondo seems wholly disarmed. In The Leopard with playboy Burt Lancaster, she leads him in a waltz, not the other way around. In the same film, Alain Delon runs heedlessly after her. She does not allow herself to be caught. In Visconti’s Sandra , she returns in 1965 as Sandra Dawson, to the house of her childhood and faces past traumas. Just as in real life.

She leaves her discoverer and long-time partner Franco Cristaldi in the mid-1970s for film director Pasquale Squitieri. It costs her an international career. Cristaldi did everything he could to prevent her from getting any more big roles. But Cardinale is finally free. No longer is she told what to do and what not to do. Cardinale changes to art house cinema, shoots revolutionary political and social material, accompanies Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski into the darkest abysses of the soul in Fitzcarraldo .

In 1961, Claudia Cardinale was interviewed by Italian author and politician Alberto Moravia. The discussion later became legendary. On the occasion of the publication of a small new volume from Schirmer / Mosel Literatur, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “This book is a small private screening, a small magic act, a subtle illusionistic performance. A man – Alberto Moravia, the author as a magician – makes a woman appear – the young Claudia Cardinale – and then makes her disappear again. “

Cardinale was 23-years-old at the time, Moravia already 53. It was just before The Leopard and . A psychological skirmish plays out. In the first part of the conversation, Moravia sought to question Cardinale “as an object,” asking her about her height, her hair color, and so on. The diva answers monosyllabically. But then something opens, the subconscious emerges, a dream becomes the object of the rhetorical game. Later on, it was said that this was the first time Cardinale spoke about her child, about her role as a mother, but also about the pressure of always having to be perfect, never being free: Still timid in symbols, images, still half -hidden, only urgent on the surface. At the end of the excerpt, which we’ve re-printed here, Cardinale “wakes up.” It’s as if she never fell asleep again afterward.

From: A Somewhat Unusual Interview

Cardinale: I will tell you about a dream that I have dreamed repeatedly.

Moravia: When did you dream it?

CC: About five years ago.

AM: What did the dream look like?

I dream of falling out of a window, with the feeling of falling into a vast emptiness.

And then?

And shattering …


Yes, how my body fell on the pavement and shattered on impact.

An unpleasant sensation?

A strange sensation.

Shatter how, exactly?

Shattering into pieces.

Like a glass vase or another fragile object?

No, like a human body, like my body.

And then what?

I remember the exact moment I hit the ground as I fell.

What did you hit it with?

My head.

And then?

Then I hear the loud, dull sound of my body, which the impact shatters and tears into pieces, and I wake up.

Did you wake up calmly or horrified and shocked?

Horrified and shocked, but not too much.

Do you remember other dreams?

I often have nightmares.

What kind?

I see things in the distance, far away, but still clear and sharp.

What kind of things?

Like the blanket, for example, which instead of being near, is very, very far.

And what else?

The telephone, far, far back.

Back where?

In the dark, in the infinite.

Do these things stay far away, or do they move and come closer?

Sometimes they are too close and stick to me, then I have the blanket in my eyes, the telephone on my pupils.

What do you feel during these nightmares?

A feeling of emptiness, of disgust.

And you wake up?

Not always. By the way, these nightmarish things happen to me even when I’m awake.


Especially in the evening, before falling asleep.

What happens then?

I can no longer judge the measure of things around me.

What does that mean?

For example, it seems to me that the nightstand is very far away. But it’s right next to the bed.

So it’s not the measure of things, it’s the distance?

No, it’s the measurement.

How do you explain these things?

I can’t explain them because I don’t understand them.

You never dream of other people?

Yes, occasionally I dream about other actors.

Don’t you dream about the man you love or, at least in your dreams, think you love?

I never dream of personal things, only absurd things.

Such as?

Once I dreamed that I was standing on a balcony on the fifth floor, and suddenly a gust of wind swept a small three-year-old child off the balcony; after that, I ran downstairs, completely distraught, to look for the child’s body, I came out into the street and asked all the passers-by where the child has fallen, finally, I find a scrap of his clothes under the iron arch, I continued to look for his body, crying, until they told me that the child has been taken somewhere, I think to hospital, in any case, it is not dead, although it fell from the fifth floor, and then I go to the hospital to visit the child, and at that moment I wake up. 

More bodies falling? Your own, the child’s …

Mmm …

Are these bodies clothed or naked?

The child’s is clothed.

And yours?

Mine naked.

Now tell me: What do these dreams have to do with what you are when you’re awake?

I do not know.

I will tell you: Nothing. Because if these dreams were related to what you are and want to be in a waking state, you would not dream them. The circumstance that you have nothing to do with them, that you do not feel affected, not responsible for them, although you dream them, this very circumstance allows you to dream them. But let us continue. You went to bed at one o’clock and fell asleep. Whether you were dreaming or not, what were you doing at two?

I’m asleep.

At three?


At four?


At five?


At six?


At seven?


At eight?


At nine?

I wake up at nine.

Introductory Text by Tobi Mauss
Photos: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoch / Getty Images

Alberto Moravia, Claudia Cardinale: A somewhat unusual conversation (Alberto Moravia, Claudia Cardinale: A Somewhat Unusual Interview) has been published in German by SchirmerMosel Literatur. It is translated from the original Italian by Sophia Marzolff



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