Charisma, Strength and Emotion
It was said that Dalida was part Édith Piaf, part Juliette Gréco, part disco diva, and part black widow. She was a French-naturalized Egyptian-Italian named Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti who as Dalida became one of the top-selling recording artists in European histor but her personal life was relentlessly tragic. For the Gigliottis, music was the family business. Dalida’s father was first violinist at the Cairo Opera until he broken by his time in an Allied internment camp. Dalida immigrated to France to pursue some kind of show business career and won a fateful radio talent contest in front of the network director, Lucien Morisse and record executive Eddie Barclay. Both men played instrumental roles guiding her early career. Morisse also married her, but it did not last.
Director Lisa Azuelos’ film opens after Dalida’s first, unsuccessful attempt to take her own life, following the suicide of her younger Italian lover. Dalida and death were constant companions and this is a recurring motif throughout the film.
Sveva Alviti is a strong physical likeness of Dalida and she manages to show class and dignity amid all the lurid melodrama. The performance is very physical as Dalida had regular bouts of anorexia. The young unknown plays Dalida with charisma and an impressive strength of emotional conviction in the songs. In the beginning in 1956 we learn of the competition in Paris which launched Dalida, then just 23) and the movie ends in 1987 (the date of her suicide). We see a carefully calibrated popular “product” that plays on the impossibility of Yolanda Gigliotti to achieve fulfillment as a woman yet she becomes an artist under the name of Dalida.
The film opens at Paris’ Orly Airport with Dalida lying to her brother Orlando (Riccardo Scamarcio) and her cousin Rosy (Valentina Carli), making them think she’s leaving only to then double back and secretly steal away to the Price of Wales hotel in Paris, where she tries to end her life a month after the suicide of her lover Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi). During her convalescence, we meet several important people in her life and see a series of flashbacks of her childhood in Egypt and the suffering she endured as a nerd who is mocked by her classmates, her father, a violinist, incarcerated for being Italian in the context of the Second World War, at the “Number Ones of Tomorrow” variety show in 1956 at the Olympia when she met Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), the Director of Programming at Radio 1 Europe. He would go on to fall in love with Dalida and propel her to fame, with the help of Eddie Barclay (Vincent Perez) and Bruno Coquatrix (Patrick Timsit).
However, fame and happiness in Dalida’s private life were absent and her multiple fast romances often ended in tragedy with three of the men in her life committing suicide (Tenco, Morisse and finally Richard Chanfray (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and the chance of becoming a mother was taken from her, first by her husband and manager who would not allow to ruin her career by becoming pregnant and then due to an abortion that was the result of a brief romance with a younger man and that left her permanently unable to bear children. We see that Dalida’s incredible music ability was surrounded by passionate love affairs and deep personal tragedies and these give us a poignant melodrama of a film.
Dalida is a fascinating protagonist. She was haunted by her father’s detainment during World War II and by tragedy, pain and death. These tragedies here are paralleled with Dalida’s extraordinary vocal talents and beauty and the director uses Dalida’s lyrics to mirror the film’s narrative events and character emotions. As the film progresses, we see Dalida as a person who is unfazed by societal expectations and as a woman with so much love that all she can do is follow her heart. This leads to brief relationships with artist Jean Sobieski and Italian musician Luigi Tenco and Tenco’s suicide marks a pivotal part in Dalida’s life, with the musician becoming more fragile and attempting suicide herself. Azuelos finds some kind of inspiration in this by recounting Dalida’s returning zest for life and passion for music. She finds new love, twenty-two year old Lucio (before later embarking on a more volatile relationship with media personality Richard Chanfray). In all of her relationships, director Azuelo captures Dalida’s spirit and passion for music, even when tragedy or pain follow her.
As Dalida, Sveva Alviti is brilliant. She captures the magnetic, world-adored appeal of Dalida and convincingly channels the pain and heartbreak that Dalida faced through her turbulent relationships. She is equally at ease when portraying Dalida’s incredible musical performances. The film also looks at the passion of the singer’s musical performances.
Azuelos has stated that the movie is a redemption for Dalida who still is known as having one of the most successful careers. She left it and her departure was devastating, and the film somehow tries to explain this why this woman, who was ahead of her time became France’s sweetheart and then left everything behind. She had it all, and yet had nothing. Her life was doomed by drama and tragedy. She was tired, insecure and towards the end, despite her new ventures as an actress, she was lost and getting forgotten since the glamour of the sixties and seventies no longer existed.
I never saw Dalida in person but I remember when she recorded a song about peace with the Hebrew and Arabic words for both. Maybe she thought she could make a difference but the gulf was already too big to bridge. At least, unlike so many others, she tried. I was in Israel when she died and we all shed tears.