Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Bellissima (1951)

As no doubt I've written previously and as no doubt I shall write again, there is always the danger of some disappointment when catching up with a film that has previously eluded me.  I have wanted to see this third feature from the rather baroque Italian director Luchino Visconti for yonks and while I am more than happy to have finally cornered it, it wasn't at all quite what I was expecting. Yes, it was very good in many ways, but something of an anomaly in the director's oeuvre. His earliest films "Ossessione" (1943) -- the first movie version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- and "Terra Trema" (1948) are rooted in the Italian neo-realistic renaissance, but his later films like "Senso", "The Leopard" and "Death in Venice" display the dramatic flair that this aristocratic scion brought to his famous operatic productions. "Bellissima" on the other hand is something of a transition, a story that is rooted in reality and poverty, but which also makes room for both satire and humour -- not notable qualities of his later sensuous outings.

The Italian superstar and 'earth-mother' Anna Magnani plays a would-be stage-mother, a slave to the empty dreams of movie unreality, desperate, nay obsessed, to push her young daughter into the world of comfort and riches that a screen career would provide. Set in the post-war poverty of Rome, Magnani becomes a force of nature when she goes to Cinecitta, along with hundreds of other pushy mothers, answering an open casting call for a six- to eight-year old girl to star in director Alessandro Blasetti's next film.  In this mob scene, she loses sight of her daughter Maria, a remarkable Tina Apicella in her only film appearance, who has wandered off to play by a pool.  Dishevelled and dirty, she drags the wee mite into the tail end of the auditions, where she recites the 19th Century poem 'Addio a Venezia' in her little-girl voice, contrasting rather notably with the over-trained singing, dancing, and Betty Grable-impersonating of the competition.  The director notices that she is rather small for a six to eight-year old (in fact the actress was only five at the time), but Magnani counters this observation by insisting that her dress makes her look smaller than she is and manages to win a call-back for the lass.

Despite her husband's objections that they can hardly find money for their rent, Magnani squanders her savings on dramatic lessons, photography, special dresses, and bribes to ensure Maria's success. The bribes -- flowers for the director's wife and other nonsenses -- are suggested to her by con-man Walter Chiari who pretends to take a genuine interest in the mother and child, but who in fact wants the money to buy a motor-scooter.  Magnani is not stupid enough to be unaware of his self-interest, but is convinced that she must do whatever is necessary for young Maria's future.  When she sneaks into the screening of the test footage for Blasetti and his minions, the cruelty of the industry is rammed home; the child is unable to blow out the candles on a prop birthday cake, can't quite remember her poem or speak out, and finally bursts into heart-breaking tears.  This reduces the executives into uncontrollable fits of giggles and Magnani's dreams are shattered.  Even when the studio subsequently offers a contract and an unreal salary, Magnani's only concern  is to protect her innocent daughter from the scorn and heartbreak that can follow.

Magnani played an earthy dynamo in nearly all of her films, from "Rome Open City" (1945) through "Mamma Roma" (1962), but is at her best when acting in her own language.  Although she did win an Oscar for her English-speaking role in "The Rose Tattoo" (1955) and has made her mark in other American films, the full force of her personality is slightly stifled when she tries to overcome her language handicap.  In this movie, she is passionate, unbridled and riveting.  Although 43 at the time and looking every year of it and while never one of the screen's great beauties, she looks magnificent here, roping the viewer initially into her determination and ultimately into her realisation and defeat.  Both on stage and on film, Visconti was famed for supporting his actors in every possible way, for always highlighting their talent; the respect in which he holds his star here is manifest and manifold.

With a screenplay from the celebrated female writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico, a frequent Visconti collaborator, who also worked extensively with Zeffirelli and Antonioni, this film has the legs to linger long in the memory.  It was fascinating to watch, yet managed to leave a slightly sour after-taste which I must admit I was not expecting.  Somehow I thought it would all be jollier than in fact it was, as mothers screamed 'bellissima' to get a director's attention, in the vain attempt to point out how very beautiful their generally ungainly daughters were.
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