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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Patient Advisor / Treatment Assistant

£13520 - £19520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's market leader in Refra...

Guru Careers: Tax Manager / Accountant

£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Business Development B2B - Year 1 OTE £25,000

£17000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Several opportunities to join t...

Recruitment Genius: Systems Administrator

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a small, busy team s...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works