A graduate of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, Vittorio Cottafavi began in the industry as a clapperboy. After graduating to screenplays and assistant direction under Alessandro Blasetti and Vittorio De Sica, he became a director in his own right in 1943. Many of his films have been “sword-and sandal” epics, dealing with the Roman Empire. Cottafavi concentrated exclusively on television work from the mid-’60s. —IMDb
Bertrand Tavernier and Moullet on Cottafavi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MF_Gr_JtQE&list=WL0D71434242ED4DD2
Synopsis for non French speakers in the following series of comments; my additions in : Tavernier: Although in the 50s already Truffaut wrote an article in praise of Cottafavi's amazing Traviata '53, in the 60s when C. had started making pepla, the sole issue of Présence du Cinéma devoted to C.  was treated with incredulity & people were making jokes about these crazy French critics who were finding things of interest in the films of Freda and Cottafavi. One had to wait for several years after that for a slow recognition to emerge. Moullet: At that time in Italy there was a feeling that genre film was a very minor mode, and only neo-realist films (though themselves part of a genre, not recognized as such) had any standing.
Tavernier: C was first known for his historical films (Legions of the Nile in particular, in praise of which there was an extremely positive article in the Cahiers) but this was because at that time this was all one could see. Slowly there was an increasing appreciation of his melodramas and his 'cape et épee's [swashbucklers]. I remember with great vividness Milady and the Musketeers for instance. Slowly one discovered that C was quite complex, that he was very cultivated and had a very delicate sensibility that did not exclude humour. It was not as if his destiny was to make these genre films. In the beginning he was quite ambitious. He made a very beautiful bittersweet comedy with de Sica [I nostri sogni]. Then he made a film that I have never seen but was rediscovered in Italy recently called 'Fiamma che non si spegne'. This started off an uproar somthing like Clouzot's Corbeau. Ut was about the resistance and because of the character of the hero, the journalists and critics banded together to call it fascist. There was even a declaration signed by many critics formally excluding him from the neo-realist movement! Thus his career was nipped in the bud by the dogmatic violence of these journalists. And thereafter the man who had sought to adapt Bernanos and Julien Green had to take refuge in the minor genres.
Tavernier: still he made amazing films: Il cavaliere di Maison Rouge, Traviata, Una donna libera, Avanzi di galera (repris de justice), Milady and the Musketeers. Films that were fully personal and remarkable. When the box office started to do poorly on these he switched to historial films and was very successful there, even making a pepla that was really quite good: Hercules and the Conquest of the Atlantides. But his real ambition was realized in his TV films where he did amazing adaptations of Dante, Molière, Calderón. [He talked about a Euripides adaptation in modern costume that he liked a lot]. But when he was somewhat critically vindicated and rehabilitated, he was able to shoot a larger film called 'I centi cavalieri' who was a commerical flop and was totally mutilated as shown on TV or in France. For instance there was a battle scene that starts off in color and turned into black and white - so one couldn't distinguish the two sides. After the battle ends, there are two characters walking about the dead and slowly the color comes back. This was all fully colorized when shown on TV [destroying its expressionist intent]. One can only dream of the career C might have had if the critics had been less imbecilic and bloodthirsty.
Moullet: Though he flirted with anarchism, he really was a very refined gentleman, deliberate in manner and ready to make fun of himself, somewhat embarrassed by the genres he worked in. He did not much care for [slavish fidelity to] objectivity of the historical sources and thought he genres he worked in were simplistic, his treatment made things complex, which was not seen by Italian critics of that time. In effect his work was subtle and refined. He also had a baroque sensibility, also in terms of how experimentation is part of baroque and the same frame would express several distinct tendencies.
ABOUT HERCULES: Moullet: There is an interest in documentary in C as well. One of the most impressive things about Hercules are the volcano shots by Haroun Tetzieff (who was later also used by Godard in Puissance de la parole). The eruption of purely documentary images in this delirious and playful fiction film is quite impressive. // C talked frequently about Brecht and though this was in part his way of distancing himself from the other genre directors who did not even know the name, there is a certain Brechtian quality to the film. And therefore in the middle of this playfully fantastic film there are allusions to a certain contemporary reality and a contempt for war and warriors, esp. in the dramatization of the battle, which goes against the very spirit of the pepla!
Tavernier: The element of humour also was used to wryly deflect genre expectations. At the beginning Hercules is so passive and inert and I still remember that fishing [?] scene where he catches nothing. I remember Cottafavi telling me that his Hercules has something of the Gaul in him, as if he were the distant ancestor of Obelix [a character from the Asterix comics]...And there is a sense of drollery in the film
Tavernier: Through the simplicity, there is also a fable on atomic danger and the use of an Absolute Weapon. I'm not saying this is a message film, but that C manages to even express certain things in a genre that seemed unable to convey the least idea, is quite striking. A beautiful, decorative, entertaining film, full of inventive camera movements and a beautiful use of space...one can really see Cottafavi battling against the clichés and constraints of a genre which can be pretty paralyzing, where one has to use these beachbums and socialites who are barely disguised as actor... battling and overcoming the constraints to his advantage.
Felliniesque dream sequence from Vittorio Cottafavi's Ministry of Fear TV mini-serie (1966): http://youtu.be/ZcTfSl1p5Ws
Cottafavi deserves more recognition. He is not even a director in here... He must be! Old Cahiers thought him to be one of the greatests auteurs of the cinéma. I agree after seeing Traviata '53, I Nostri Sogni and Una Donna ha Ucciso, three absolute masterpieces. Unbelievable treatment of space to create a melodramatic effect. Please, add those films and others.
Cottafavi didn't like the film at all, but I do agree, Una donna libera is definitely his best melodrama. Anyway, Fiamma che non si spegne is even richer in its stylistic and narrative inventiveness, and here Cottafavi was able to express his most personal concerns. Also, his TV works contains some more masterpieces, including Maria Zef (strictly related to Una donna ha ucciso/Una donna libera).