You always notice the fingerprints of a Tennessee Williams production: An exotic locale within the US, unrepentant sexual longing bound up within questions of femininity and masculinity. The Rose Tattoo bears all of these marks, as well as explores the generational gap in courtship and romance. Dominated by two magnetic leading ladies – Anna Magnani and Marisa Pavan – The Rose Tattoo is a tale of love, romance, and Italian virtues.
After her husband dies, Italian-American seamstress Serafina (Magnani) is forced to confront rumors of her husband’s infidelity. This is complicated by her headstrong 15-year-old daughter, Rosa (Pavan) who is desperate to get out from under her mother’s thumb.
You might have noticed the absence of Burt Lancaster’s name within the synopsis, and really he isn’t the stand-out character despite being the A-list talent. His truck driver character, Alvaro Mangiacavallo, is meant to be a sensitive soul who has no compunction with crying in front of women and declaring his love by climbing up a ship’s mast.
The issue lies in how miscast Lancaster is as a lovesick Italian-American, particularly when playing against real Italians Magnani and Pavan. Lancaster, at times, hams it up and comes off as a man playing the sensitive soul to seduce, or con, Serafina. Part of this stems from the lack of characterization given to Alvaro – he’s the reincarnated, albeit grossly different, version of Serafina’s husband – as well as Lancaster’s distressed acting. He spends the movie talking a mile a minute so it’s hard to get a grasp on anything he says, and speaks Italian as if he’s learning via Rosetta Stone. Arriving over an hour into the movie also drags you away from the more interesting story arc between the two women.
Alvaro’s relationship with Serafina is fascinating, if only to emphasize the point that widows – and older women – still have sexual desires. Serafina is resistant to any change away from her Italian Catholic upbringing, but once she realizes her husband cuckolded her, she starts to wonder if maybe she isn’t pushing herself away from love. Yes, Alvaro isn’t perfect (he comes over drunk and gets into a confusing bit of miscommunication with her daughter), but the story is how Serafina handles these changes, not Serafina and Alvaro as a couple. When Rosa discovers Alvaro has spent the night, mind you he was passed out on the floor while Serafina slept in a different room, Serafina would rather lie and say Alvaro is a burglar than admit to thinking of a sexual relationship.
Serafina is where the movie’s heart lies, not in the name-brand recognition of Burt Lancaster (sorry, Burt). Burt plays the role like an Italian stereotype whereas Magnani and Marisa Pavan live in it. Magnani feared her English wouldn’t be strong enough for this movie, but her rich Italian voice and peppering of her lines with authentic Italian phrases, provides authenticity to her character. Serafina finds it difficult to reconcile this new world where sexuality is discussed frankly, in public.
She has no compunction with caressing her husband in the privacy of their bedroom – a scene filled with voyeuristic intimacy – but becomes uncomfortable when two women discuss searching for men in her house. Before she throws them out, Serafina declares “this is a respectable house.” To her, a woman must be respected and said respect is bound up within innocence in all its forms. It wouldn’t be a Williams play without discussing sexuality, but The Rose Tattoo feels different, maybe because it’s discussing changing sexual mores and the double standard of sexual virtuousness.
Serafina’s old World Italian model clashes with that of her daughter, Rosa. Having read the biography about Pier Angeli, I knew Marisa Pavan was her sister, but I had no idea the resemblance between them. I originally thought Angeli was in this! Pavan looks exactly how Natalie Wood thought she should look in West Side Story, and is exquisite. Roses may saturate the movie in every way, but none of them does the job of living life as a rose like Rosa.
Serafina is desperate to protect Rosa and keep her like a rose in a glass, forever fearing it will be plucked, so to speak. Pavan is innocent in her appearance, lacking makeup or enhancements of any kind, but her naivete gives way to a fierce independence to experience life. She refuses to give up on love or life to live away with her mother. When Rosa falls in love with a young sailor (Ben Cooper), the audience fears for Rosa considering the reputation of sailors within movies. Jack Hunter’s meeting with Serafina is a fun scene with Serafina making the boy jump through hoops, including swearing to God, before taking out her daughter, but his devotion to this proves his love. The various showdowns between mother and daughter scorch a hole in the celluloid; these two women could be mother and daughter and you could believe it.
The Rose Tattoo is a story of women fighting for independence, but unable to do so out of depression and fear. Marisa Pavan and Anna Magnani are raw and talented, while Burt Lancaster passes muster but can’t hold a candle to the two beauties playing opposite him. Williams’ script eschews exaggeration to present a cinéma vérité blending of fact with fiction, anchored by two women who are too hot to handle.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.