Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 20 March 2008
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Looking at Bellissima from our perspective, with Visconti’s entire career to look back on, the film doesn’t seem as much of an anomaly as it must have appeared on its release. This was Visconti’s third film, coming after two classics of neorealism: Ossessione with its frank portrait of sexually-driven characters firmly grounded in a hard-nosed depiction of social realities; and La Terra Trema, to my mind the masterpiece of forties neorealism with its perfect balance of social(ist) concerns, a strong narrative, non-professional acting performances, and on-location shooting. Bellissima does seem quite a change, but a consideration of the later films—the operatic romanticism of Senso; the melodrama and overt symbolism layered over a re-visited neorealism in Rocco and his Brothers; the camp histrionics of The Damned; the static classicism of Death in Venice—puts this change into perspective. Bellissima’s connections with neorealism now appear much stronger.
The most obvious neorealist connection is of course the original story/screenplay of Cesare Zavattini, who you could call the patron saint of neorealism through the many films he contributed to as a writer (prominent examples: Rome, Open City; Bicycle Thieves; Umberto D). But significantly the final screenplay, worked on by Visconti himself, assistant director Francesco Rosi, and his ever-faithful collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico (from Bellissima on she co-wrote almost all his films, up to and including his last one, The Innocent), deviated from Zavattini’s original downbeat ending. The ending we now have is one of moral victory with important political/social implications in the way it asserts the virtues of the working-class Cecconi family over the middle-class/bourgeois world which mother Maddalena has been trying to raise her family into.
Bellissima is in essence a satire on the Italian cinema industry, centred on the famed Cinecittá studios, but in contrast to other entertainment satires of the time – the world of vaudeville in Lattuada/Fellini’s Variety Lights, that of the fotoromanzi in Fellini’s The White Sheik – the comic tone in Bellissima is fairly muted, most prominent in the mass scenes of hysteria as hordes of mothers try to get their pre-teen daughters into an acting role in the movies. Any comic satire is subordinated to the appalled fascination with which we observe Maddalena’s obsessive drive to win a starring role for her five-year-old daughter Maria.
The film opens with a credits sequence that is as far from our preconceptions of Italian neorealism as it is possible to be. We see a radio performance of a Donizetti opera, L’elisir d’amore, which segues into a crass announcement of a casting competition for a new Alessandro Blasetti film. (Blasetti, who plays himself in the film, was a prominent director of the Fascist period, most renowned for his Risorgimento drama 1860 but whose post-War career devolved into anodyne comedies and sand-and-sandals epics.) In his book on Visconti Henry Bacon sees the themes of Donizetti’s opera – the charms of love and money and the exploitation they invite – as related to Bellissima’s treatment of the world of cinema. He points out that the opera theme used in Blasetti’s scenes is that of a charlatan figure in L’elisir, and it thus works as a critical reading of the figure of the director. This is an interpretation Visconti himself promoted in interviews, but to be honest this musical allusion will bypass most viewers (myself included) and the effect of the rest of the film in terms of Blasetti’s role is very different.
In fact, Blasetti is treated with a lot of respect by the film. He’s a reserved figure, withdrawn from the crass madhouse atmosphere and the dubious ethics of the filmmaking world he sits at the top of. (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith – in his book on Visconti – refers to him as godlike and divine.) He’s more perceptive and more humane than anyone working around him. In the screen test he singles Maria out by picking her up and giving her a kiss; he refuses to join in the raucous laughter that greets the screening of Maria’s test; he fires Annovazzi in symbolic punishment of the corruption and amorality the latter represents (he’s tried preying on Maddalena financially and sexually); and, of course, he’s the one who sees the potential in Maria that others can only reject with laughter. Most of all, Blasetti underlines one of the moral points of the film, when, after Maddalena has left the studio humiliated and with her hopes crushed, the director tells one of his associates: “This is cinema. We’re responsible for all of this.”
Maddalena’s unstoppable drive to get her daughter into the movies is both fascinating and appalling, and is at one with the energy that Anna Magnani brings to her amazing, substantially improvised performance. Magnani had, of course, defined herself as the quintessential female icon of Italian Neorealism through her portrayal of Pina in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. She gives a tremendous performance in Bellissima, as equally vital and inspiring as that which Renoir drew from her a couple of years later in her more famous role in The Golden Coach. True, it’s hard to know where the dividing line is (or whether there even is one) between Anna Magnani herself, the “La Magnani” persona she projected in her public life, and the character of Maddalena that she plays in this film. In any case, Visconti gives her the space through lengthy takes to take the scene wherever her own inspiration of the moment draws her. Look at, for example, the non-stop monologue she gives in an early scene as she moves about her tenement apartment; or the scene where Maddalena administers an insulin injection to a rich client (this job is the source of the family’s extra income), which Visconti shoots concentrating on Maddalena as she emerges from the bathroom conducting a stream of conversation with the off-screen client, who is only eventually revealed when the camera follows Maddalena across the room. In this scene as with the film as a whole, Maddalena/Magnani is the focus of attention, with all the actions and characters revolving around her.
Visconti’s introduction of Maddalena is wittily done. After the radio announcement of the casting call competition, we cut to the Cinecittá studios. As the mass of women and children charge left, Visconti pans right to Maddalena moving off in the opposite direction, her black clothes already distinguishing her from the grey and lighter tones of the other women’s clothing. She’s in search of the suddenly missing Maria, who she eventually finds in a tearful state—not the last time in the film that Maddalena’s pursuit of a career for her in the movies will reduce the child to tears. This is the cruel, even blind side to Maddalena’s drive.
In the classic style of the stage mother, Maddalena’s own ambitions and frustrated desires have been projected onto her daughter. For Maddalena, cinema represents an ideal, an ultimate escape from and contrast to the economic miseries she can otherwise find no way of extricating herself from. Rather symbolically, there’s an outdoors cinema running screenings outside her very building (showing Red River of all things), and Maddalena explicitly rejects the assertion by her husband Spartaco (a pitch-perfect performance by a non-professional) that this is all a fantasy world. Moreover, Maddalena views a film career for Maria as a means for the daughter to avoid the fate of the mother: “I want her to be somebody […] She mustn’t become a loser. She mustn’t depend on anyone or get beaten like me.”
In Maddalena, there’s a fascinating mixture of hard-bitten cynicism and naïve optimism. Except for her final humiliation at the end of the film, nothing puts her off balance. She can weather anything with resilience and self-deprecating humour. We see this in a minor key in her first scene with her husband Spartaco. He’s setting off with his buddies to a football match and in quick succession refuses to let her to go to the match with them, ignores her request to take her to the movies, and orders her home to feed their daughter. But Maddalena shrugs this all off, cheerful and unaffected. There’s a gutsiness to her here, which can come out a lot more forcefully if the occasion demands—such as in her antagonism towards her mother-in-law that later explodes into the breaking of a window when mum-in-law implies her relationship with Annovazzi is a questionable one. (True, his interest in her is partly sexual, but Maddalena consistently deflects any attempt at a pass on his part.)
In her pursuit of a movie role for Maria, Maddalena finds herself made use of, even taken advantage of, by a number of people working on the periphery of this movie world—a drama teacher, a photographer, a hairdresser, a ballet instructor. But she seems to treat any exploitation she experiences as par for the course and even acceptable if she can get what she wants out of the exchange. So, she mocks the intrusive drama teacher – who goes so far as to steal some food out of her kitchen – but still allows herself to be talked into hiring her. And rather surprisingly she even seems to accept the fact that Annovazzi extorts a substantial sum of money out of her, on the pretext of using it in order to establish important contacts for her. In a separate scene away from Maddalena we see him using the money to buy a scooter; yet in later scenes Maddalena deliberately, mockingly leads him on in his lies about how he spent the money and appears unsurprised by his actions – okay with her, it would seem, as long as she achieves her aims in the process.
There’s some attempt at drawing a parallel between Maddalena and Annovazzi in terms of their poor, working-class origins. When Annovazzi, in yet another attempt at half-hearted seduction, takes Maddalena away from her mother-in-law’s restaurant for a walk by the riverbank (and what a pity that the patently studio set here is in such striking contrast with the location footage preceding it, undermining the authenticity and conviction of the scene), he reveals his own deprived background as the force driving him in his schemes. A desire to escape their social class is the primary motivation for both of them. For Maddalena, pursuing this movie career for Maria is her way of raising her daughter out of her class. Visconti repeatedly makes clear the distinction between working-class Maddalena and the other, middle-class mothers—sometimes to comic effect, as in the scene at the ballet school. But the ending he and his writers made to Zavattini’s original screenplay not only makes a stronger thematic point about the cinema world but – in a romantic gesture for the aristocratic Visconti – also positions the working class as more authentic and morally superior.
The climax of the film, when Maddalena sneaks in to watch the screening of Maria’s test, brings her to a painful realisation of the delusion of her quest. She’s already received warning of this in the case of the editor Iris – whose initial screen success never panned out, losing boyfriend and job in the process – but it’s a warning Maddalena refuses to acknowledge. It’s only through the humiliation of the screening that she finally comes to a realistic understanding of the nature of the world she is trying to enter. The pain that Maddalena experiences is palpable in the way Visconti focuses in close-up on Maddalena holding Maria in her arms and reacting with disbelief, horror, agony, and despair. Her later cry of “Help!” as she weeps on an empty bench, the sleepy Maria beside her and the cheery sounds of a nearby circus mocking her, marks the lowest point she reaches.
But Maddalena – and Magnani – is too vital a force to be left so downcast. As I’ve mentioned, Visconti rejected Zavattini’s downbeat ending and a true deus ex machina twist offers, in terms of the story’s original premise, a potentially happy ending. But Maddalena has now been strengthened enough by her experiences to reject the allure of the cinema world. In this sense, she now seems to accept husband Spartaco’s designation of cinema as fantasy. But there’s also an assertion (here’s the true political dimension of the film) of working-class values and a rejection of the middle-class cinema world with its questionable ethics and morality. Above all it’s a validation of Maria’s worth, irrespective of how the child may be judged by the outside world. Finally, this child whose own needs (including sleep) were ignored throughout the film by an overambitious mother is given priority, in her own terms. “Don’t wake the child up”—and the camera sweetly, tenderly tracks in on her sleeping form.