DVD Review: Bellissima (1951)
It seems like you can’t turn on the idiot box these days without coming across the newest reality show star turn. Thirteen weeks of Big Brother and the great British public vote for a winner who thinks Shakespeare directed Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet simply because he was the nicest of a particularly motley crew.
Concerns about the dumbing down of TV aside, it does make you wonder what televisual legends we’re going to revere in twenty or thirty years time. Genuine talent seems to be in painfully short supply, and nowadays producers are reverting to the lowest common denominator, which is your basic common-or-garden talent revue. There’s no denying that there are some people in this green and pleasant land that do have genuine skill and presence, but that’s not exactly why people tune in – it’s to see either cute kids being pushed to the front of the stage by pushy parents living a dream vicariously through their offspring, or the judges arbitrarily ripping into self-deluded but honest people.
Unsurprisingly, this is not a new phenomenon. In the “golden age” of entertainment, we’re supposed to think that studios and producers were blessed with the insight to pull in people off the street who had natural ability and make them true stars. Of course, that’s untrue, and child stars especially were ruthlessly worked until they self-combusted, spectacularly portrayed by Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It’s not as glamorous as we’re given to understand.
Luchino Visconti took this central premise for his 1951 film Bellissima, released for the first time on DVD. It was reputedly based on the legions of housewives who turned up at Rome’s famous Cinecittà studios on a daily basis, shoving their cute children into his office and trying to convince the director to cast them. In a forerunner to the long-forgotten Little Britain sketch, the inevitable negative response would destroy the child’s confidence and cause their parents to tear them off a strip for lacking star quality.
The film is set against the casting of a major new movie in which the director (played by real-life helmer Alessandro Blasetti) wants to cast a cute little girl. The studio announces an open casting, which pulls in a huge crowd of expectant parents. One of these parents is Maddalena Cecconi (Anna Magnani), a mother from the slummy part of town with dreams of reaching the top. Although her daughter Maria (Tina Apicella) is reluctant, her mother gets her into the casting through friendly producer Alberto Annovazzi (Walter Chiari) and is invited back for a second session.
The true ambition of Maddalena is split wide open when former star Tilde Spernanzoni (Tecla Scarano) turns up unexpectedly and offers her help. So desperate is she to get her little girl in the film, Maddalena agrees to pay an exorbitant sum for the lessons, buys an expensive new dress for her child and enrols her in ballet lessons. None of these things matter – Maria is unsuited to showbusiness in general but Maddalena is so wrapped up in her dreams that she overrides her daughter’s moans.
Matters come to a head when Alberto convinces Maddalena to pay him 50,000 lira to bribe the casting crew. Needless to say, Maddalena is taken for a ride, and in the final reel Maddalena takes Maria to Cinecittà to see her casting video, and the producers are so appalled at the child’s lack of talent that they laugh like drains. In an attack of conscience, the director decides to offer Maria the part, but finally Maddalena sees the light and turns down the offer for the sake of her family.
Despite being over fifty years old, Bellissma is surprisingly up-to-date. Despite what the parents of modern stage-school talent claim, there’s something intoxicating in guiding your young ones to the top of the pile so you can bask in their glory. Maddalena has the bug bad, and she’s superbly portrayed by Magnani, giving her a restless, shrewish temperament in which she only looks out for number one. Despite being set on the wrong side of the tracks, Bellissima’s cinematography is exquisite, and some of the sets are beautiful.
It is a slow film, totally different to close cousins Drop Dead Gorgeous and American Dreamz, and Maddalena’s dialogue does grate because she never shuts up. The course of the narrative is entirely predictable like a Take A Break short story but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. Visconti’s commitment to neo-realism invests a searing critique of ambitious parents, and the message is clear – by all means want the best for your children, but don’t overrule their feelings.
It’s genuinely saddening to see Maddalena’s dreams go up in smoke, and she does make the right decision in the end. But it’s debatable whether a modern audience could invest in the slow pace and heavy dialogue of Bellissima, which would be a shame because despite its age, it’s got important things to say about the nature of fame now more than ever.
Extras: A trailer and two interviews with Assistant Director Francesco Rosi.