There are some Neapolitan songs I love for the lyrics, others for the music, and some for reasons I find hard to explain.

Malafemmena, or Evil Woman as it is known in English definitely falls into the latter category.

I don’t know what it is about the song, it just haunts me. It carves out a tiny little piece of my soul every time I hear it and I connect with the song in a way that defies explanation.

Tu si na malafemmena

You are an evil woman

A melancholy story about a man betrayed by the woman he loved, it was written in 1951 by Antonio De Curtis, the beloved Totò. Better known as a comedic actor than songwriter, Totò was not only the prince of laughter but a dramatic actor, poet, writer, and singer as well. Born in Naples Rione Sanità district, Totò would become one of the most influential Italian artists of the 20th century. His Malafemmena, one of the most beloved Neapolitan songs of all time.

The man in the song is none other than Totò himself. The malafemmena is his wife, or rather his ex-wife, Diana Bandini Lucchesini Rogliani. Brought to life by Massimo Ranieri and Lina Sastri in John Turturro’s Passione, it is the story of love and hate, passion and jealousy, desire and disgrace, and loyalty and betrayal.

For years it was believed that the malafemmena in question was the Italian actress Silvana Pampanini, who had refused Totò’s marriage proposal. But in February 2009 Totò’s daughter Liliana De Curtis released a compelling new book about the song. Entitled Malafemmena: Il romanzo dell’unico, vero, grande amore di Totò, it gave a voice to the unsung hero in the story, Diana. The story of the life long love and passion Totò had for Diana and her for him, the title, the one and only true and greatest love of Totò, nearly speaks for itself.

Diana met the 33 year old Totò in 1931 when she was just 15. The following year they moved in together and in 1933 their daughter Liliana was born. They married in 1935 but their marriage was annulled in Hungary just four years later. As John Turturro explained however, Diana agreed to remain until Liliana turned 18.

A difficult man subject to mood swings, Totò was at once possessive and jealous and yet a known philanderer. Diana stuck it out for 10 long years until she finally left in 1950, 2 years short of Liliana’s 18th birthday. But Diana never got over Totò nor him her. In an interview with WUZ Cultura e Spettacolo Liliana said that before she died her mother said “she was happy because Totò had finally come to take her and they would once again be together.”

I think it is this universal love story woven within Totò’s words and his melody that resonates and accounts for the song’s enduring popularity and its ability transcend gender, time and even language.

Covered by all the great artists, it might be easier to say who didn’t do Malafemmena than who did. It was an Italian singer, Antonio Basurto who first performed it, the Neapolitan singer Mario Abbate who debuted it at the 1951 Piedigrotta La Canzonetta competition and the Sicilian Giacomo Rondinella who made it a success. And Renato Carsone, Massimo Ranieri, James Senese, and Jerry Vale are just a few of the artists who have paid tribute to this song over the years.

But I happen to be a bigger fan of the female interpretations of Malafemmena. Connie Francis has been credited with recording the first female version (a fact I’m still trying to confirm) with words especially written for her rendition in 1963.

Another of my favorites is from the Roman singer Gabriella Ferri.

Two completely different renditions, I find Connie Francis’ version more bittersweet and Gabriella Ferri’s rendition more passionate, but both tug at my heart strings.

Perhaps that is the genius of Totò’s Malafemmena. The unrealistic expectations, the harsh words of this pre-femminism Neapolitan man should insult us, but they don’t. Instead, the words, the melody and the universal theme of the song create a malleable canvas that allows for an infinite number of interpretations, both by the singer and the listener. Each finding in the song their own version of the story.

Malafemmena – Evil Woman

Si avisse fatto a n’ato – If you had done to someone else
chello ch’e fatto a mme – what you did to me
st’ommo t’avesse acciso, – that man would have killed you,
e vuò sapé pecché? – and do you want to know why?

Pecché ‘ncopp’a sta terra – Because in all of this land
femmene comme a te – a woman like you
non ce hanna sta pé n’ommo – is no good for any man
onesto comme a me!… – honest like me!…

Femmena – Woman
Tu si na malafemmena – You are an evil woman
Chist’uocchie ‘e fatto chiagnere.. – that made these eyes cry
Lacreme e ‘nfamità. – tears and disgrace.

Femmena, – Woman,
Si tu peggio ‘e na vipera, -You are worse than a snake,
m’e ‘ntussecata l’anema, – you poisoned my soul,
nun pozzo cchiù campà. – I can’t live anymore.

Femmena – Woman
Si ddoce comme ‘o zucchero – you are as sweet as sugar
però sta faccia d’angelo – but your angelic face
te serve pe ‘ngannà… – only serves to deceive

Femmena, – Woman,
tu si ‘a cchiù bella femmena, – you are the most beautiful woman,
te voglio bene e t’odio – I love you and I hate you
nun te pozzo scurdà… I can never forget you…

Te voglio ancora bene – I love you still
Ma tu nun saie pecchè – But you don’t know why
pecchè l’unico ammore – because you are the only love
si stata tu pe me… – there has ever been for me….

E tu pe nu capriccio – And on a whim
tutto ‘e distrutto,ojnè, – everything is destroyed
Ma Dio nun t’o perdone – but God doesn’t forgive you
chello ch’e fatto a mme!… – what you’ve done to me!…