| March 5, 2012

I have a troubled relationship with Luchino Visconti. Considered one of the giants of Italian cinema, the director has either to tendency to complete stun me or leave me with dull melodrama. Belissima, the third feature from Visconti, is quite a change in direction from his previous two films-Ossesione and La Terra Trema-but is it for the better?
All the young girls of Italy’s capital have gathered for the “Prettiest Girl of Rome” contest. The winner, chosen by the famed director Blasetti, gets a role in his new movie. Though not every girl has made it on time.
Dragging along little Maria, free-spirited Maddelena Cecconi(Magnani) suddenly finds herself childless as she approaches Cinecitta Studios. After finding her daughter next to a fountain, Maddelena and Maria get a ride from Alberto Annovazzi, one of Blasetti’s assistants. Their luck continues when he tells them Blasetti will like Maria and promises to get them to the front of the line.
With the assurance of a call-back, Maddelena and Maria return home happily. Though their provincially impoverished apartment reminds them the importance of the contest. Spartaco, the husband and father of the family, returns home later to argue with Maddelena about exhausting little Maria. While the two bicker, Maria only yearns to go to school.
A few days later, while Maddelena waits for a professional photographer to arrive, an actress appears and begins to teach Maria lessons. Despite Maddelena’s protest, the woman continues to teach Maria, insisting that to be a true actress needs lessons. Convinced, Maddelena takes the little money the family has and gives it to the woman.
Thus begins the downward spiral of Bellisima.
Judging from the “studio-critiques” that came out during this period, Bellisima must be the harshest. Antonioni’s The Lady Without Cameilas is a close second. Written with Ceseare Zavatini, proclaimed godfather of Neo-Realism, Visconti literally makes us laugh-out-loud at the downward spiral of the Cecconi family.
Performing in her usual vivacious demeanor, Magnani makes poor decision after poor decision. But she’s funny while doing it. Usually recognized for her touching performances in Rome, Open City and Mamma Roma, this surely is the actress at her best. Visconti simply leaves the camera on her for elongated moments but they lack dullness.
Magnani’s spectacular performance isn’t the reason Visconti uses her. Her larger-than-life persona emanates Italian Neo-Realism. Despite putting the film mostly within the walls of Cinecitta, Visconti still fits Bellisima inside the “working class” genre with the Cecconi’s consequences and mindset. The stark contrast is even made vividly clear when the camera pans from the luxurious studio space to the barren bus stop where Maddelena and Maria wait.
But Visconti, a well-known aristocrat, still manages to accomodate his other passion in Bellisima: opera. Opening the film with a symphony performing, inside a studio rather than opera house no less, il maestro regista prepares us for the forthcoming soundtrack. Introducing character and scenes with operatic timing, Visconti successly merges his two passions. He would do this more vividly later in Senso-one of the reasons Visconti and I don’t always get along.
In the end, I love Bellisima. With a moving final scene, Visconti preludes himself to his most acclaimed film Rocco and his Brothers Visconti’s ability to bring a cinematic closeness to his character’s is admiring and truly touching. If Bellisima leaves you with anything, it’s a further view into the career of a truly great director.
*The DVD includes a wonderful vintage trailer of Pasolini’s Medea.
*Another fun note about Visconti’s Neo-Realism: Much like in La Terra Trema and Ossesione, subtle hints of the past and lingering prescence of Fascism are included. Staying true to Bellisima‘s genre of comedy, Visconti uses a joke to point it out.
Maddelena’s father approaches her during dinner and yells, ‘Forza Lazio!’. A encouraging chant for Rome’s notoriously, and still prevelent today, politically fascist soccer club.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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