Italy (1951) Dir. Luchino Visconti

If you have been appalled by parents who push their kids into auditioning for TV talent shows or hideous beauty pageants, imagine how legendary Italian auteur Luchino Visconti must have felt encountering them en masse when auditioning for child actors. The result of his experiences is this trenchant, savage satire, penned with Bicycle Thieves writer Cesare Zavattini that predates the delusions of the modern “stage mother” by some sixty years.

As film director Alessandro Blasetti (playing himself) arrives in Rome to hold auditions for his next young girl star, the local mothers descend upon the Cinecittà studios with their daughters in hand. Among them is working class film fan Maddalena (Anna Magnani) who wants her daughter Maria (Tina Apicella) to have a better life as a famous actress. Maria doesn’t seem to share this enthusiasm but Maddalena is determined to make this work whatever the cost.

While the intent for Bellissima was to be a satire it is a rather tragic story delivering a heartbreaking final act that wouldn’t be out of place concluding a melodrama from Visconti’s Neo Realist contemporary Vitorrio De Sica. Outside of this the sight of Maddalena’s vigorous determination to make Maria a film star is also pretty sad, such is the single mindedness  of her mission which she has to keep quiet from her bullying husband Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli), since his pay packet runs their home.

Maddalena works numerous jobs to raise the funs to put Maria through ballet school, elocution and acting lessons in preparation for her screen test. Maddalena doesn’t have the first clue about this but as it happens, shifty Alberto Annovazzi (Walter Chiari) is on hand to pull a few strings, help grease a few palms and point Maddalena in the right (and expensive) direction. As D-day comes ever closer Maria finds each step of the journey a difficult one to overcome due to her small stature, lack of confidence and rather sadly, lack of talent.

There doesn’t appear to be much scope for humour reading the above plot summaries, but it comes from the minutiae and the subtleties of Maddalena’s energetic actions. If she had been any other nationality Maddalena would be the most obnoxious, unbearable horror creation know to man but being Italian there is an odd earnestness about the character that lends itself to some levity and satirical probing. This may make Maddalena appear, at least to modern audiences, like the stereotypical Italian mama with the non-stop chatter, constant complaining and wild hand gestures but given the nature of the situation it fits perfectly.

We shouldn’t like Maddalena because of her pushiness but her indomitable spirit in the face of her husband, the people in the film industry and the other pushy mothers wins us over and as alluded to earlier a brutal blow delivered in the final act brings out a side of her character hitherto unseen. The obvious sympathy figure is young Maria who is swept up in the torrent of her mother’s ambitions unaware of which way to turn for help when her pleas go ignored. Maddalena may be the one making all the sacrifices but it is Maria who suffers the most.

This is my first time seeing a Visconti film and my only point of reference is that he was from the same class of filmmaking as De Sica of whom I am a fan. What I found was something similar yet very different in their depictions of modern day (at that time) Rome. While De Sica was focusing on the downside of suburbia with the hardships of the working class in such classics as Bicycle Thieves or Shoeshine Visconti, in this film, was looking at possibilities of getting out of this impoverished lifestyle. Yet there was a truth and vitality in both works that is difficult to ignore and makes for a fascinating and potent juxtaposition of clashing yet converging ideas.

One thing I must say I found particularly wonderful was the introduction of Maddalena. Usually the star appears in a contrived scene so we know who they are and how important they are to the film; here Maddalena is seen in a wide shot just one indistinguishable person in a crowd of many until the crowd starts moving and suddenly; a frantic mother is looking for he missing child. That was Maddalena. Just a marvellously understated yet effective moment to behold.

For many people of my generation the name Anna Magnani would be mostly associated with the famous Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where the lads are disturbed late at night by both Magnani and “bloody Greta Garbo”. The fact she is an Oscar winning actress and regarded as one of Italy’s greatest exports might be lost on many, so to them I say watch this film.

For Magnani this is almost a one woman show since she effortlessly dominates every scene she is in, demonstrating an extraordinary acting range from comedy to pathos to drama to romance to realism to sheer gravitas. Hardly a conventional beauty Magnani is an engaging presence on screen who encapsulates everything about Maddalena that the script called for and I defy anyone to not feel her pain and her fury in the final act. Simply put a tour de force performance. A special note of praise for young Tina Apicella is warranted notably for her ability to cry on cue.

Bellissima is as much a warning for star struck wannabes as it is an attack on the industry in which Visconti made his name. While nothing about the inner workings of the film business is revealed the many traps that lay on the various pathways leading to stardom are covered with an acerbic eye. Putting a flabby second act aside this is a prime slice of astute, thoughtful and emotionally riveting Italian Neo Realist comic drama deserving of its classic status for film buffs and film makers alike.