Maddelina Cecconi (Anna Magnani) is trapped with an abusive husband from a working class background. A nurse who provides injections for diabetics, she and her husband are saving their money in hopes of someday getting a home of their own. She wants better for her young plain looking daughter, Maria (Tina Apicella). She loves the movies (we see her watching Howard Hawks “Red River” on the local outdoor screen). When she hears about a movie director’s, Alessandro Blassetti portraying himself, open call for 6-8 year girls for his next film, Maddelina, like hundreds of other hopeful mothers, heads to Italy’s famed Cinicitta film studio with Maria for the auditions. During the process she spends the family’s small savings on ballet lessons, clothes for the young girl and paying off a hanger on who ensures her Tina will get the role. Maddelina becomes blinded by the possibilities of fame and fortune, a way out toward a better life for her daughter. By the end of the film, after hearing the film crews cruel assessment of Maria’s screen test, Maddelina realizes the superficiality of the film industry and that the cruelty of rejection is all too often the end results. Maddaline comes to finally realize family is more important that fame and fortune.
Directed by Luchino Visconti, “Bellisima” was only his third feature film. At this early stage in his career, the film may have been looked at as a change from his two earlier features. “Bellisima,” unlike his first two works, is filled with as much humor as it is with drama. Both of Visconti’s earlier films were rooted in the Italian neorealist movement. “Ossessione,” his first film, was based on James M. Cain’s, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and to my mind, remains the best version made of Cain’s novel. Its lustfully driven lovers are part of the poor working class, struggling to find something, anything, worthwhile in this post war poverty stricken country. His second film, “La Terra Trema,” tells the story of one family’s attempt to break away from the greed of the bosses who control the fishing industry. That said, the common theme in all three films is the efforts by the working class to make a better life for themselves.
“Bellissima” is at times funny, brutal, satirical, sad, and finally poignant. Visconti takes a harsh look at the film industry exposing it as corrupt, exploitive and humiliating in its use of people. At the center is an engaging performance by Ms. Magnani who spews her dialogue at the rapid pace of an out of control train. At times, she is proud, protective and willing to take a beating from her abusive husband in order to protect her dream for her daughter. The film is worth seeing for Magnani’s magnetic and powerful performance alone. Seeing her here or in “Rome, Open City” or any film where she speaks her native Italian, you get the full force of what a great actress she was. In addition, the film is notable as a precursor to “La Dolce Vita,” which also took on the morals of the film industry, some seven years earlier than Fellini’s classic.
“Bellisima” was released in Italy in early 1952, though it did not make it to the U.S. shores until May of 1953 when it opened in New York City at the 60th Street Trans Lux Theater where it had a healthy run. Available on DVD.