‘Bellissima’ or — Visconti… Has Fun?!

Luchino Visconti’s ‘Bellissima’ (1951) is the director’s only pure “comedy” film and it is a depressing watch. Not because it isn’t any good. In fact, it’s great! But that’s the problem as afterwards all I could think was — “Why couldn’t he have made more films like this?!” Now I’m not saying Visconti could’ve been the next Gerald Thomas (if only!) but, going from this, the film world’s a poorer place without more Visconti comedies in it.

‘Bellissima’ is a film about cinema fans and cinema itself even though Visconti can’t resist opening with some opera for no apparent reason (but this is Visconti after all so asking him not to include any opera is like asking Tinto Brass not to include some tits), specifically the phenomena of pushy stage mothers, those women who saw the bright lights of movie stardom as a way out of war-torn poverty for their children.

So, after the credits, there’s a fantastic shot of total chaos as a mass of countless mothers push their way into Cinecittà studios so they can then push their daughters under the director and producer’s noses. Yet escaping out from out of this throng, and running in the opposite direction, emerges one, lone figure and it’s that of Maddalena Cecconi (Anna Magnani) searching for her lost daughter, Maria. As yet we’re unsure if her worry is concern for Maria’s well-being or the fact she’ll miss the audition.

From here on we follow mother and daughter as Maddalena runs the two ragged pursuing the dreams she has for her child against the backdrop of a post-war Rome and a changing Italian film industry. The only problem is Maria is only five years old, has no discernible talent (her act isn’t dancing or singing but reciting a poem about the Venetian plague) and still just wants and needs to be a kid.

Yet Maddalena is relentless, taking her tiny daughter to be professionally photographed (where she is blinded by the flash light), then ballet lessons (but Maria is too tiny to reach the bar) and even having her hair styled (Magnani’s horrified reaction to her daughter’s new hair-do had me crying with laughter). Her exasperated husband tries subtly yelling some sense into his wife’s head but it seems nothing will stop her, even resorting to bribes and other methods to achieve her goal.

What’s initially striking about ‘Bellissima’ is the ironic use of the title as practically nobody is what you’d call “beautiful” in this movie. Sure, Magnani is still captivatingly gorgeous but only because the dowdier and frumpier you make her the sexier she becomes (here she practically explodes with domestic eroticism). Even her kid, Maria, isn’t precisely what you’d call pretty, simply being an adorable child who’s as cute as a button but no more so than any other kid that age. That’s because these are “flesh and blood” women, distinct from the cheesecake pin-ups of Hollywood flicks. This is Italian (tail-end) neorealism after all.

Still, the fantasy of cinema is a fully integrated part of the fabric of these people’s lives. There’s an outdoor one just outside the Cecconi’s apartment which seems to occupy the same space the surrounding buildings use for hanging out their washing and drying their clothes. It is, literally, part of the community and the sound of this cinema seems to have seeped its way into Maddalena’s mind. At one point she is enraptured by the outdoor cinema showing Howard Hawk’s ‘Red River’ (1948) which not only informs us about her character but is also a sort of meta-commentary taking place between the down to earth Italian actors in ‘Bellissima’ itself (Magnani, etc) and the idolised American stars (Wayne, Clift) up on the screen who seem to exist in a fantasy realm.

Also, it’s not so much an strictly Italian phenomena played with here as more a distinctly Roman one. Rome was a film crazy city at this time with, at one point in 1956, the average citizen going to the cinema roughly 35 times a year. Not only that but there’s the fact the Cinecittà, unlike a lot of other studios around the world, wasn’t located miles outside the city but in Rome itself, meaning it could be easily inundated by these stage mothers. Again, cinema is located at the heart of this society which could be another reason why neorealism flourished here.

Yet it is Magnani, the professional actor, who completely dominates the entire movie with a performance that’s explosive even by Magnani standards. She simply never stops talking and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her! There’s an marvellous, and important, moment when she looks out a projectionist’s booth window and down onto the director and his team laughing at her daughter’s test-screening below, the glare of furious anger she directs at them more intense and blinding than the light blasting out of the movie projector rattling next to her. At another moment she declares “No one can resist my cheerfulness!”, and she’s not wrong because I know I couldn’t. She’s like a firework in a lace camisole top!

Apparently Magnani was such a strong performer that Visconti abandoned his perfectionism and simply let her go for it, allowing her to almost take control of the picture, which explains why it feels like it’s her that’s driving this movie, because she essentially is. It also highlights just how much energy and life can enter a film when the director gives up on perfection and why this might be Visconti’s most satisfying work.

Magnani’s performance could also account for what appears to be the use of direct on location sound, rather than the post-production dubbing Italians would typically use, possibly to capture Magnani’s spontaneity and improvised lines. Not only that but there’s the constant barrage of yelling and shouting too, most of which I wouldn’t be surprised came from co-writer Francesco Rosi as nobody quite wrote ‘Italians Shouting at Each Other’ scenes quite like Rosi did. For example, there’s a beautifully handled scene where Maddalena and her husband, Spartaco, have a furious row only for all the neighbouring women to descend into their tiny home and start joining in. And it’s complete mayhem and chaos! A cacophony of yelling, shouting and screaming… only for, once Spartaco has stormed off, all the women to relax and laugh and we realise it has all been a performance to simply get rid of the man! It’s amazing and notice that it is Magnani who is conducting and controlling it all and with total precision.

‘Bellissima’ is charming and touching but it’s also spectacularly critical about the film industry, especially those who seek to profit from those desperate to enter the system. In its way it’s as biting as Godard’s ‘Le Mépris’ (1963) or Blake Edwards’ ‘S.O.B.’ (1981) in that regard except freed of the contempt of the former and the relentless bitterness of the latter. Indeed, ‘Bellissima’ feels like the direct precursor to Godard’s ‘Le Mépris’ in many ways as both films concern the cynicism of the film industry, use Cinecittà as a location and both had a famed director playing themselves (Fritz Lang for Godard and Alessandro Blasetti for Visconti).

It’s also an excellent look into the early 1950’s Italian film industry and Italian society and how they both intersected, specifically with the use of competitions, pageants and contests to find the latest star and which were often seen as the road into the movies by many. Oddly enough this was a illusionary dream that neorealism helped to promote itself but that’s a discussion for a whole other time.

‘Bellissima’ is fantastic. It’s not only the best Visconti movie I’ve seen (it’s certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most) but it also might contain what’s possibly Magnani’s greatest performance, and that’s REALLY saying something.

There’s a lot, and I mean A LOT, I could say about this film but in closing I’ll keep it to one, short sentence — God, how I wish Visconti had made more like this.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.