Serafina Delle Rose is a proud woman. She has a pompous self-importance that makes her stand out among the other Italian women in her small Gulf Coast community. Her marriage to truck driver Rosario saved this destitute wretch from a miserable life in the old country, and she has faith in his love and affection. Unfortunately, Rosario has secrets, and when he dies in an accident, the truth comes pouring out. He was not only transporting produce—he was smuggling, and cheating on Serafina with a local slut.
Pregnant with a son when Rosario died, Serafina had a miscarriage, and now spends her days in a stupor, unable to connect with herself or with life. Her teenage daughter, Rosa, worries about her mother, fearing that she will fall deeper into depression. Serafina feels the need to protect her child, especially when she learns how serious Rosa’s relationship is with young sailor Jack Hunter.
Then one day, Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a vibrant, slightly silly man who instantly falls for the melancholy madam. Naturally, Serafina wants nothing to do with him. But slowly, and gradually, she learns that there is more to life than the memory of her late husband and the scandal with which he left her. Serafina must forget the past and embrace the future. With Alvaro, she has that chance.
It is said that the legendary playwright Tennessee Williams was desperate to craft a vehicle for his longtime friend and occasional muse, Italian actress Anna Magnani. Hoping to showcase this fiery, intense diva with a play equal to her supreme stature, Williams devised a simple story of an Italian widow wounded by her dead husband’s infidelity, only to be courted by a new, brash beau. It would mix elements from his previous literary successes as well as celebrate the Sicilian heritage he learned from his companion, Frank Merlo. The result was The Rose Tattoo, featuring another of Williams’s certified strong, slightly unhinged women at its center.
The stage was literally set for Magnani to take Broadway by storm. Problem was, as the time came to essay the role of Serafina Delle Rose, Magnani balked, claiming her English wasn’t good enough to effectively bring the character to life. She refused to appear, and Williams was left to recast the part. He got the far younger Maureen Stapleton for the lead, and The Rose Tattoo opened on the Great White Way in February 1951. It was another Tennessee Williams smash, going on to win four Tonys, including Best Play and acting honors for stars Stapleton and Eli Wallach (as Mangiacavallo). When the time came to make the movie, Magnani was again approached. Again, her English was less than graceful. So, via a very unique performance style, Magnani was fed her lines by a dialogue coach, and she mimicked the sounds she heard. The result was a monumental thespian turn, earning Magnani an Oscar as Best Actress.
Magnani is indeed the main reason to visit The Rose Tattoo. Those who enjoyed—or suffered through—the works of Williams while in school will recognize the arcane, poetic writer’s style all throughout this early piece. Tattoo was written after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (two classic works of theater if ever there were any), but before Williams’s other successes like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.
Specifically crafted to emphasize—and perhaps stereotype—certain ethnic Italian ideals, as well as to showcase the fall and rise of a stubborn, selfish immigrant, Tattoo has all the trimmings one associates with a stage show. Magnani must work around all the obvious imagery, shuttling symbolism (especially the awkward title emblem) and incidental iconography within this standard slice of melodrama to make Serafina a real, vital individual. It is to her well-deserved credit that the actress takes what could have been a harsh, almost unsympathetic character and imbues it with life and substance.
Magnani is all sex and shame in The Rose Tattoo, a mixture of Old World classicism and New World haughtiness molded into a defiant, somewhat desperate woman. Though she is dowdy and depressed throughout most of the film, Magnani manages to hint at both the life and the love still locked inside Serafina. Saddled with a couple of obvious showpiece moments (her visit to the church bazaar and the confrontation with Rosario’s mistress come to mind), she still managed to cement this overwrought work with the earthy neo-realism of her amazing performances from Italian cinema. She is the heart and soul of The Rose Tattoo, and after watching her for nearly two hours, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.
As the other major element in the movie, Burt Lancaster is a bit of a problem, albeit a very minor one. He has the size and the heft to play Alvaro Mangiacavallo, and as an actor, he matches Magnani’s efforts bravura to bravado. But he makes an ethnically blank Italian. Lancaster, who was purely Anglo-Saxon, tries his hardest, and sometimes he succeeds. When not required to mutter and bumble over Williams’s culturally queer dialogue (there are times when The Rose Tattoo feels like a parody of a Mediterranean melodrama), the usually magnificent actor finds the sincerity and strength at the center of Alvaro’s persona. We are supposed to feel an instant connection between Serafina and the strapping suitor, and it’s as much a testament to Magnani’s smoldering sexuality as Lancaster’s matinee idol attractiveness that the combination works.
There is a tendency in The Rose Tattoo to see the actors as working at stylistic cross-purposes within the film. Magnani wants to keep Serafina grounded while still successfully existing within Williams’s mannered circumstances. Lancaster, on the other hand, wants to go with the hyper-realistic flow, to make his character as large as—or occasionally larger than—the life the author prescribed for him. Such a dichotomy would normally kill a film, but it works in The Rose Tattoo only because of the immense talent of both actors. Had director Daniel Mann—a Hollywood journeyman responsible for such diverse films as Come Back, Little Sheba, Butterfield 8, and Willard (1971)—utilized someone like Marcello Mastroianni or Anthony Quinn, the film may have been more culturally sound. But Lancaster brings something to Tattoo that both adds and subtracts from the experience.
For a modern moviegoing audience, the real enemy here is the stagy, almost claustrophobic nature of the film. Mann keeps the majority of the action inside the cramped, closed-off Delle Rose home with its shuttered windows and low ceilings. While all the ominous trappings are supposed to suggest the cloud of grief overwhelming Serafina, one has to wonder how much of her dilemma comes from the death of her husband, and what percentage derives from a lack of sunlight and fresh air. There has been no real attempt to “open up” the play, to make it less like a single setting circumstance. Certainly, the scenes at the festival, and Serafina/Alvaro’s trip into town are an excuse to introduce the real world into the insular domain of the Delle Rose’s, but the overall impression given off by the film is of a distinct, compact world (which may be what both Mann and Williams wanted).
Equally uncomfortable is the standard subplot silliness of Serafina’s teenage daughter, Rosa. All the clichéd checkpoints are here: a child embarrassed by her mother’s raging ethnicity, the over-attached puppy love for a milquetoast man (the sailor, Jack), and a near-constant sense of public and private adolescent angst. Marisa Pavan is given the difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to find a compassionate center to what is basically a living, breathing reminder of Serafina’s shame. While such a blatant object—either human or otherwise—may work on stage, it’s far too obvious a device on film. Though it is occasionally hampered by such histrionics, The Rose Tattoo is still a solid drama with excellent performances piercing through the poppycock.