A Legendary Performance In an Underrated Masterpiece: ‘Bellissima’

Although 1951’s Bellissima seems to be frequently overlooked and underrated in the filmography of Luchino Visconti, it could be his greatest achievement. Featuring an unforgettable performance by Anna Magnani and an original story by Cesare Zavattini (who worked on classics like Umberto D and Bicycle Thieves), Bellissima is a perfect combination of the gritty, claustrophobic naturalism of his pioneering neorealismo films with the near-operatic melodrama of later films like Death In Venice or The Leopard. Bridging these two periods and synthesizing the best of each style, a strong case could be made for Bellissima as the essential lynchpin of Visconti’s entire career, and, if not his finest moment, certainly among them.

A satire of the hypocritical meat grinder that is the film industry, Bellissima may be one of the best films ever made about the disconnect between the idealized world of glamour portrayed in the movies and the soul-crushing realities that go into their production. Visconti lays bare the brutal emotional and social tolls extracted by the “dream factory” of cinema, and in doing so creates a vision of the film industry more biting and vicious than any of the poison-pen industry send-ups that have emerged in the half-century since.

The simple plot is set in motion when a movie director (Fascist-era director Alessandro Blasetti, playing himself) announces a casting call for “the prettiest girl in Rome” to play the six-to-eight-year-old lead of his new picture. Almost instantaneously, what seems like every mother in Rome descends on the film studio Cinecittàin a screaming, hysterical gaggle, each towing a young daughter and jockeying for the attention of anyone who will listen, desperate to prove that their child is the most bellissima.

Among this gaggle is Maddalena Cecconi, a working-class mother who has dreams of propelling her daughter Maria into the world of glamour and fame that she can only see on movie screens. The only problem is that she’s just one of a thousand other stage-mothers thinking the exact same thing, not to mention the fact that Maria is manifestly untalented and without the slightest interest in acting or movies. Nevertheless, Maddalena wades into the fray undaunted, willing to use whatever means necessary to snatch the prize she obsessively craves for her daughter – a callback to audition for the director. Maddalena pursues her goal with a craven obsession that actively blurs the line between a parent’s supreme confidence in their child and pure manic fanaticism.

Immediately and inevitably, the parasites descend to prey on Maddalena’s blind optimism and naïve hopes, each one promising that little extra something that will get Maria noticed — for the right price, of course. Ballet teachers, acting teachers, hairstylists, and assorted low-level studio “fixers” are all happy to whisper just enough false hope into Maddalena’s ear to keep her paying, even if they have no intention of following through. (In one heartbreaking scene, Maddalena negotiates a payment with a man who promises he can grease all the right palms at the studio for her, only to turn his back and spend it on a new motorbike as soon as she’s out of sight.) Still, it’s an exercise in mutual exploitation, as the determined Maddalena is all too eager to do whatever it takes in order to secure an edge on the competition. Nevertheless, each transaction bleeds her a little drier, and each one entails some fresh new humiliation for Maddalena and her poor daughter to endure.

Although it’s often described as a comedy, the humor is markedly subtle and gently low-key, often coming from simply observing how brazenly the characters pursue their own selfish interests in the name of money or fame, such as the venomous, passive-aggressive insults that the mothers hiss at each other as easily as exhaling, or the opportunistic hairdresser who accepts more clients than he can accommodate, handing some of them over to his young son, who barely knows which end of the scissors to hold.

The entire film is anchored by the magnetic and spellbinding performance of Anna Magnani, who fills every frame she occupies with a burning vitality and intensity that is almost impossible to look away from. In 1951, she was one of the reigning queens of Italian cinema and was already making waves worldwide — none other than Bette Davis named her as her favorite actress and called her tour de force performance in Bellissima “brilliant, uninhibited and full of volcanic, earthy power.”

Four years after Bellissima Magnani would earn an Academy Award for her performance in The Rose Tattoo. But the explosive energy and deeply-affecting humanity that she brings to bear on her role as Maddalena Cecconi, particularly in the film’s wrenching final act, make it arguably the finest performance of her career. It’s a portrait of ferocious emotional intensity and protective maternal love so powerful that it becomes almost like an elemental force of nature. It’s as stirring and affecting a portrayal of motherhood as any ever captured onscreen, and it’s largely due to the masterful work of “La Magnani”.

There’s virtually not a moment in the film when she is either still or silent. With the exception of a couple key scenes, Visconti films her almost exclusively from the remove of medium and wide shots, giving her a wide berth in every composition to storm from one end of the frame to the other and back again according to her whims. Her every onscreen breath is spent expressing herself, either bickering with one of her many rivals, arguing with her husband, scolding her daughter, or pleading with a studio functionary to grant her some minor favor or other. Even her moments alone, as rare as they are, are spent singing snatches of songs or soliloquizing to herself about whatever is whirling through her head at the moment. She’s a dizzying, chaotic whirlwind of limbs and language, overwhelming anyone in her path with sheer verbiage and volume. (It helps that Visconti chose to shoot the film with direct on-location sound rather than overdub the dialogue later, which was the Italian norm at the time.)

Her manic energy throughout the film makes it all the more affecting when, in the film’s most famous scene (at the time, Variety called it “one of the cruelest scenes ever filmed”), Maddalena watches from a secret vantage point as a roomful of studio flacks mock and jeer at her daughter’s disastrous screen test. Later that night while walking home, with the lights and laughter of a nearby carnival seeming to taunt her from a distance, she collapses onto a bench. Only then – drained, traumatized, contemplating her broken dreams – do we see her struck dumb for the first time, and her silence is deafening. It’s a haunting, iconic role for Magnani, and certainly one of the great female leading performances of the era.

Entertainment One’s new North American DVD release of Bellissima is free of extras except for a trailer, but it’s praiseworthy nevertheless simply for bringing this long-unavailable masterpiece back to the public. Bellissima features two masters of their respective crafts — Visconti and Magnani — at the absolute height of their powers.

RATING 9 / 10
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