“When I came to Italy to work in cinema, I was convinced I would find an open-minded, free-thinking, modern environment, like in France, but instead …”. Catherine Spaak does not have good memories of Italy in the mid-sixties. She recounted her experiences yesterday on the Radio2 programme “I Lunatici”, and then spoke to us at the Corriere: “I had been filming ‘Crazy Desire’ directed by Luciano Salce, and was then offered other roles in films by Dino Risi, Florestano Vancini, Pasquale Festa Campanile, and Mauro Bolognini … but my worst memories regard ‘The Incredible Army of Brancaleone’ by Mario Monicelli. On the set there was me, the seamstress, the production secretary, just a few women … the rest were all men and they were all important actors … at the time I was still basically a newcomer, little more than a girl. I didn’t speak Italian very well back then, and when I arrived early on set, they started to make fun of me, and some really laid into me… went too far: nothing short of bullying”. Because you were a woman and French? “Because I was a woman. They did everything they could to embarrass me, and I felt out of place, it was horrible; I remember it was a difficult time, and working on the film was anything but pleasant.
Lift from Gassman
Yet the story told in the film, released in 1966, was fun, with leading roles played by Vittorio Gassman (Brancaleone da Norcia); Gian Maria Volont (Teofilatto dei Leonzi; and Enrico Maria Salerno (Zenone). “There wasn’t the enjoyable atmosphere there should have been,” Catherine emphasized. And I remember something else that happened: one evening, at the end of filming, the car that was supposed to take me back home didn’t turn up. It was late and Gassman was asked to give me a lift, since he had a car. Vittorio accepted, but from his expression I sensed that he wasn’t very happy about having to accompany me, maybe he was annoyed … I got in the car rather embarrassed, and shrank into the seat, trying to make myself as small as I could so as not to disturb him. And what did he do? “He remained silent for the whole of the journey, without speaking: not a comment, a smile or a joke to make me feel at ease… Not a sound.” What about you? “What could I do? I remained silent too, terrified by his cold, detached, hostile attitude … until finally we arrived at my house, and he pulled up in front of the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, opened the door, slipped out and closed it with great care; only then, perhaps moved to pity, or realizing that he had been unkind, did he say quietly: ‘Sorry’”.
“In Rome, it was scandalous for a girl to live on her own”
Was there only bullying on Italian film sets or was there sexual harassment too? “There was harassment too, although nothing really serious, absolutely not, but let’s just say that some unpleasant things happened to me. I talked about it long before the #MeToo movement, at least twenty years ago … and some of my colleagues at the time said that nothing had ever happened to them, I was evidently the only one …” Spaak said that in France, at the time, there was more respect for women. “It was completely normal for a girl like me, at 17 or 18 to go and work abroad. We dreamed of turning 18 so that we could get a driving licence and rent a small apartment to live in alone. In Italy, it was a scandal for a young woman to live on her own: in my apartment block in Rome they used to give me really dirty looks! But I have suffered much worse here in Italy: I lost custody of my daughter because in 1963 I had run away with her and was arrested by the carabinieri. She was entrusted to her paternal grandmother, and do you now what reason the judge gave?” What? “Since the mother is an actress, and therefore of dubious morals, she cannot keep the child with her. In other words, being an actress was tantamount to being a prostitute.”