Obituary: Clara Calamai

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WHEN AMEDEO Nazzari ripped open Clara Calamai's blouse in the 1941 costume drama La Cena delle Beffe, the moralistic cinema-goers of Fascist Italy held their collective breaths in shock: in 18 frames which were to guarantee Calamai a place in film history, naked breasts were seen on an Italian movie screen for the first time.

Like a true screen goddess, when Calamai died she left the world guessing about her age: some film guides put it at 83, others at 89. She had spent more than 20 years in diva-like retirement, refusing to perform after her appearance as an aged, murderous actress in the 1975 horror film Profondo Rosso, and shunning the press.

Calamai's acting career began in 1938 when, favoured by the Fascist authorities who ensured that cinema promoted the party line, she took role after role in the lightweight comedies and heroic costume dramas which were the stock- in-trade of the regime's official film-makers. Small wonder then that the exposed breasts of this perfectly line-toeing actress caused a scandal.

The scene, recalls the cinema historian and critic Tullio Kezich, soon disappeared from most of the copies available on the commercial circuit: not because of the wrath of the censors, but because excited projector- operators took their scissors to this bit of cinema memorabilia.

Calamai's unexpected kicking-over of traces may have been what persuaded Luchino Visconti to call her up for an interview when Anna Magnani, his first candidate to play the brusque innkeeper in L'Ossessione (1941), announced that pregnancy would keep her out of the film.

For a work which was to change the course of film-making, giving birth to neo-realism, Clara Calamai was a strange choice. It was one that paid off, however: all the dramatic capability previously submerged under saccharine performances of insignificant scripts - the whimpering courtesan of La Cena delle Beffe was memorable only for those 18 frames - came to the fore in a masterful performance as a woman who seeks to escape the boredom of her provincial life by taking a lover and persuading him to kill her husband.

Visconti - on whom Calamai had a well-publicised but unrequited crush - directed her again opposite Marcello Mastroianni in Le Notti Bianche in 1957. Around these two high-points, Calamai made 45 other movies, many of them tributes to her unfortunate gift for selecting terrible screenplays.

In part, Calamai told the daily La Repubblica in a rare interview three years ago, this was due to bad luck. "Rossellini had offered me the leading role in Roma, Citta Aperta, but unfortunately I had to turn it down," she recalled." Anna Magnani got her own back then, and took the part that was meant for me."

Clara Calamai, actress: born Prato, Italy 7 September 1909 (or 1915); married Leonardo Bonzi (deceased); died Rimini, Italy 21 September 1998.