Laura Betti

Actress and keeper of Pasolini's flame

The woman who was to become the devoted slave of the great film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was, like many liberal left-wing intellectuals, born into a comfortably-off bourgeois family. Her childhood in Bologna and early youth were spent under the ominous shadow of Mussolini's Fascist repression. But when the Second World War ended and freedom was finally restored in Italy, Laura Trombetti first rebelled by shortening her name to Betti. Soon she was gathering a sulphurous reputation in the new hot spots of Rome's café society as it revelled once more in social and artistic freedom.



Laura Trombetti (Laura Betti), actress: born Bologna, Italy 1 May 1934; died Bologna 31 July 2004.



The woman who was to become the devoted slave of the great film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was, like many liberal left-wing intellectuals, born into a comfortably-off bourgeois family. Her childhood in Bologna and early youth were spent under the ominous shadow of Mussolini's Fascist repression. But when the Second World War ended and freedom was finally restored in Italy, Laura Trombetti first rebelled by shortening her name to Betti. Soon she was gathering a sulphurous reputation in the new hot spots of Rome's café society as it revelled once more in social and artistic freedom.

Laura Betti started her very chequered career as a performer of the new jazz sounds. She was young, slim, blonde and beautiful, with enthrallingly big blue eyes. Her singing voice was warm and deep, but with her own very individual decorative excursions into lighter tonalities energised by fluent, inventive scat. She was a kind of mixture of Marlene Dietrich and Anita O'Day, but with her own maliciously witty touch.

In those days, Rome was truly, in every sense of the words, an "open city", with all kinds of theatrical, cinematic and literary freedoms striving for fresh expression. It was a life of the nights and the streets. So Betti got to know all the artists, poets, film directors, actors and paparazzi, Italian and international. Among them were French Surrealists whom she persuaded to write lyrics for her songs. Other contributors to her art were professionals like Kurt Weill and Alberto Moravia. She became one of the star turns in the intimate revue I Saltimbanchi, directed by Walter Chiari, and collected her "word songs" under the title Giro a vuoto ("Running on Neutral"). It was indeed la dolce vita.

Among the younger literary lions she persuaded to write for her was a tall, sombre figure, Pier Paolo Pasolini. She was later to become his Lotte Lenya. He introduced her to Federico Fellini, who let her compose her own script for her appearance in his film La Dolce Vita (1960). She recites her long monologue in the movie's penultimate scene.

Pasolini was to become her real life's work. On their first meeting, she declared that he "smelt of springtime and fresh-baked bread". In a January 2000 essay, she wrote:

When I arrived in Rome to make a name as a jazz singer, I started hunting for texts for my songs, and this awakened the interest of writers. I hung out in intellectual circles. One evening Alberto Moravia brought Pier Paolo Pasolini to see me. He at once aroused my interest: he just sat there in a corner watching me through his dark glasses. I went right up to him and in my best Marlene Dietrich voice asked him: "Are you afraid of me?" It was love at first sight.

Love at first sight for Betti, perhaps, but, naturally, not for Pasolini.

Betti's first appearance in a Pasolini film was in the early " La Ricotta" from Ro.Go.Pa.G, a 1963 collective work with Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini (she had already made a brief appearance for Rossellini in his Era notte a Roma, or Wait for the Dawn, in 1961). She appears in this short work (with Orson Welles) as a capricious star with an adorable pet dog and she gives the character a curiously hysterical, coarse-mouthed charm. Pasolini was already fascinated by the wilful excesses of her tongue and her personality. She felt she had to live up to this sort of explosive character in future films when it was not appropriate.

Pasolini's sexual orientation to street boys and young crooks was well known, so her voluptuous exhibitionism had little personal attraction for him. Nevertheless he tenderly exploited her particular brand of sexual panache in his sketch " Le Streghe" ("Witches", 1966). In 1967, he cast her in his contemporary version of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Her next part was more substantial, in Teorema ( Theorem, 1968), again with Silvana Mangano and the hypnotically seductive Terence Stamp. Betti plays against character as a humble, inarticulate servant in an aristocratic household in which Stamp appears as a kind of beautiful angel of erotic destinies and at once begins to fascinate and make love to all members of the family, including the father. Betti, too - paralysed, timid, speechless - becomes his victim. This role won her the Volpi Cup of the 1968 Venice Festival.

She worked with many other directors but she became more and more besotted by Pasolini, and considered herself to be his unique disciple. The film-maker treated her as tenderly as he felt able to do. But Betti was clear-eyed in her adoration. She wrote: "I think it was true love, deep and enduring." She wanted him to move into a studio next to her own. But Pasolini was cautious about becoming too close to her. None the less, they fell into the habits of a married couple: "We got used to one another," she wrote:

So we usually had dinner together. Then it was goodnight Laura, and he was off in his Alfa Romeo cruising for working-class boys . . .

With what tragic consequences we know.

After Pasolini's murder in 1975, Betti became the official guardian of his shrine. She kept a sharp eye on his copyrights. When I translated his poem on the death of Pope Pius XII, which had caused a literary scandal in the Rome of 1958, I sent a copy to Betti and she replied with a furious letter forbidding me to publish. I took no notice, and it appeared in Japan in Kyoto Editions' collection of my poems about her idol - who was also mine - Ecce Homo: my Pasolini (1981). I sent her a copy, and she replied thanking me for my tribute: it was typical of her to have forgotten all about our previous correspondence.

She remained the keeper of his flame to the end, and even wrote a novel about him, Teta veleta (1979). Her readings kept his memory alive, and in 2001 she issued a documentary about him, presented at the Venice Film Festival. She oversaw the issue of restored versions of all his films, and this year, on 24 April, ceremoniously presented all Pasolini's archives to Bologna's film library.

James Kirkup

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