The 1950s were a time of hardship but also optimism for Italy. The destruction wrought by the Second World War was still there for everybody to see but reconstruction was under way and things were getting better.
After 20 years of fascism and a lost war, Italians were thirsty for hope. They were also thirsty for laughter so it’s not surprising that many of the rising stars of the time were comic actors: Alfredo Sordi, Alberto De Sica, Peppino De Filippo. And Franca Valeri.
Valeri, who has died aged 100, was in a way, an oddity: short and wiry, she looked the polar opposite of the maggiorata, the busty, luscious beauty that had come to identify Italian womanhood. She was also ferociously intelligent and bitingly funny, qualities that many men found threatening (and still do).
Her background was another thing that set her apart: Valeri came from a prosperous Jewish upper-middle class Milanese family so an acting career was not the ticket to a better life as it was for some of her contemporaries.
Franca Valeri was born Alma Franca Maria Norsa to Luigi, an engineer with the Breda aircraft manufacturing company, and Cecilia Valagotti. The family was comfortably off — there were servants and summer holidays spent in Venice or Switzerland.
Franca was at high school when the 1938 racial laws (which stripped Jews of civil rights) came into effect and life as she’d known it, ended. Decades later she would recall her father’s tears reading about the laws in the paper and her own dismay at being banned from school.
Unable to sit her A-levels at the Parini high school she had attended, she studied privately and took them at a different school, the Manzoni. “I was hoping they wouldn’t notice,” she would recall years later. “They didn’t. Italy has always been rather inefficient!”
The worst came after 1943 when her father and brother were forced to escape to Switzerland. Franca and her mother remained in Milan using false identities and hiding among the ruins of a bombed- out house.
Mussolini’s fall, when it finally came, was a cause for celebration and Valeri was among the huge crowd rejoicing at the dictator’s gruesome end at Piazzale Loreto. “Yes, I was there and I’m not ashamed,” she would say later. “That day was the end of a truly terrible time. If you had lived through fascism’s daily oppression it was impossible not to harbour a desire for revenge as well as for freedom.”
The post-war years felt full of exhilarating possibilities, a time to make up for a youth stolen by the war.
Since she was a child Valeri had been theatre-mad and put on performances for friends and family, often making fun of her own bourgeois background.
She had also started developing two of the characters that would become permanently associated with her, la signorina snob, a middle-class Milanese who shows off her wealth but is deeply unhappy, and Cesira la manicure, a manicurist whose biting observations lay bare the hypocrisy of the Milanese middle-classes.
Franca’s family, however, did not share her enthusiasm for treading the boards so Franca Norsa became Franca Valeri, after the French poet Paul Valery, a personal favourite. Her first role, in 1947 was, however, dramatic — and Jewish. She starred in Lea Lebowitz, a play by Jewish playwright/director Alessandro Fersen, based on a Chasidic legend about a Jewish woman in love with her rabbi. It was an experience Valeri would later describe as unforgettable, and a confirmation that she could really act.
But satire was what she did best, as confirmed by her work with the Teatro dei Gobbi, a theatre company she formed in 1949 with Alberto Bonucci and Vittorio Caprioli (whom she would go on to marry). Their Carnet de Notes, which they took to Paris, was a satire of contemporary society, performed on a bare stage with no props or costumes.
The 1950s were also an exhilarating time for Italian cinema when Fellini, De Sica and Lattuada were flexing their creative muscles. Valeri acted alongside some of the biggest stars in the country: she played Sophia Loren’s cousin in The Sign of Venus (1955) and starred alongside funnymen Sordi, Totò and De Filippo. They made Italy laugh and so did she.
In the 1960s when television became a force to be reckoned with, Valeri and her funny characters became a staple of the big variety shows.
Her gaze was both merciless and empathetic, her women caught between their historic roles and the mirage of independence. One of her most memorable characters, the lower-middle class Roman “Sora Cecioni”, permanently in curlers and dressing gown, always on the phone to her mum, became one of the most recognisable creations of this upper-class Milanese who ended up living most of her life in Rome.
Besides acting, she wrote several comedies. Valeri, who was passionate about classical music, organised with conductor Maurizio Rinaldi an opera festival, Eurmuse, in Rome between 1989 and 1993, even directing a couple of the productions herself.
A great animal lover who rescued a huge number of dogs, she founded Associazione Onlus Pro, a charity for rescued animals and left her Roman villa to the World Wildlife Fund.
Although not religious, Valeri felt strongly connected to — and extremely proud of — her Jewish roots, and wore a Star of David all the time.
Curious as she had always been about life, she was intrigued by the afterlife: “I really want to see what’s on the other side,” she said.
Franca Valeri married Vittorio Caprioli in 1960; they divorced in 1974. She is survived by her adopted daughter, Stefania Bonfadelli, an opera singer.
Franca Valeri: born July 31, 1920. Died August 9, 2020