The Woman in the Castello

Image of The Woman in the Castello: A Gripping Historical Novel Perfect for Book Clubs
Release Date: 
July 25, 2023
A John Scognamiglio Book
Reviewed by: 

“a chilling read in which the art of the cinema very often reflects the drama of the actors’ actual lives.”

It is 1965 and actress Silvia Whitford is on her way to Rome to make a movie. With her terminally ill mother and two-year-old daughter, she intends to ask her estranged aunt, a former actress, to let them to live with her since they are currently near-destitute.

When Silvia arrives at Cinecittà Studios, however, she’s told by Paul Rudderman, the assistant director, that the movie has been cancelled. The studio will pay her way back home, but there’s no movie to be made.

“It was all too much, I burst into tears. Through my sobs, I could see that Mr. Rudderman had grown alarmed.

“‘Hey, there, it’s not as bad as all that. You’ll find another picture. It’s what I’m trying to do. We’re all in the same boat, you know.’”

Silvia proceeds to Plan B, meeting her aunt, though her mother protests.

“Her sister was a taboo topic and only my current desperation had me broach it. They had some kind of falling out during the war and had never spoken again after my mother moved to America.”

When Silvia arrives in Castello del Lago, and meets Gabriella, she learns the reason for her mother’s hatred: Gabriella made propaganda films for the Nazis. “‘The movie was a co-production with Germany. There was a version in German. So it was a Nazi propaganda film, as well.’ Her features twisted into a wry grimace.”

Nevertheless, Gabriella eventually agrees to let Silvia stay with her, and is actually anxious to see her sister again.

To Silvia’s surprise, Paul Rudderman reappears. He’s found a job with another film company and is now scouting out locations for a horror movie, Revenge of the Lake Witch. Gabriella’s castello with its story of a downed woman and child hidden in its depths, is perfect.

He strikes a deal with Gabriella to film at her castle and arranges for Silvia to have a screen test for a part in the picture. She gets a starring role.

Because the film crew and cast will be living at the castle, it’s suggested that Gabriella go to a resort on the coast during filming, but when the director arrives, she changes her mind. She doesn’t want her castle used in the film. “You have to make them leave, Silvia. Please, please, do this for me.”

The next morning, however, Gabriella isn’t around, and everyone assumes she has gone to the resort, until Silvia reminds them her aunt has no car. Her luggage is still in her room, and there’s a large blood-like stain on the terrace overlooking the lake. Also, the resort verifies Gabriella hasn’t checked in.

No one except Silvia appears alarmed about Gabriella’s disappearance. Even the police are indifferent. Silvia decides that between takes, she‘ll investigate on her own.

In the meantime, the cast arrives. The leading man is a star Silvia has long fantasized over but she soon finds her idol has feet of clay and a penchant for guzzling alcohol. He also takes an instant dislike to her and does his best to get her replaced. “Can’t you get her to show a bit more expression? When she does her lines, it reminds me of a dying fish flapping its mouth.”

Silvia begins a passionate affair with Paul. Between their secret meetings, her co-star’s harassments—did he really try to drown her in that bathtub scene or was it an accident?—and learning her lines, plus her worry over her aunt as well as her mother and daughter, Silvia’s emotions are running at a nerve-frazzling pitch.

She has nightmares and sleepwalks, awakening to find herself wading into the lake. Someone slashes her costumes. At night, she hears a woman crying. “Near the base of the stairs was a pile of what appeared to be garbage. I identified it as a dirty old tarp and some rope, perhaps a covering for the rowboat in winter. And then, I saw the blood.”

Under the tarp is Gabriella’s shoe.

Silvia’s certain Gabriella has been murdered. Then a message is written on a mirror: “Your secret isn’t safe . . .”

How many secrets does the castello hold? Who would kill to hide them?

Anyone familiar with Italian horror movies made during the time of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” will immediately recognize The Woman in the Castello easily fits into that same genre. With its crumbling castle, legends of a drowned witch, and modern-day secrets, there’s more than one whisper of Suspira, Black Sunday, or Blood and Roses. Silvia’s emotional ambivalence—to leave and lose her chance at fame or stay and discover the castello’s secrets—keeps the tension high and the action moving.

A story that could easily transfer from book to screen, it’s a chilling read in which the art of the cinema very often reflects the drama of the actors’ actual lives.