A former nightclub singer, Anna Magnani was a star of Italian stage and screen known for her portrayal of earthy, peasant-class women and an emotional style of acting that brought volumes of praise.
Tennessee Williams was so impressed by her that he wrote the play “The Rose Tattoo” with her in mind and asked her to star in it. But in 1951—the year that “Bellissima” was released in Italy—she didn’t know enough English and turned him down. Williams persisted, persuading Magnani to play the female lead in the film version of “The Rose Tattoo” when it was released in 1955. By then she was more comfortable with English, and her reward for acting in her first English-language picture was an Oscar for Best Actress.
“Bellissima” doesn’t get much press, but it’s a terrific introduction to Magnani and director Luchino Viscontin—who, along with Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Gianni Puccini, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sico, Cesare Zavattini, Susco Cecchi d’Amico, Guiseppe De Santis, and Pietro Ingrao, worked in a style of filmmaking known as Italian neorealism from the end of WWII until the early 1950s.
Italian neorealism was a reaction to more genteel films of the time that followed Hollywood’s lead, depicting an upper class and a level of comfort that most post-war Italians did not know. Instead, the neorealists focused on the economic struggles of the working class engaged in everyday activities and small pursuits. Rather than elaborate sets, they preferred to film on location in real urban neighborhoods and homes or on struggling country farms. And rather than pay a cast of actors, only the stars were professional actors, while the rest were nonprofessionals coached by the director. Not surprisingly, their themes often targeted the system that had failed people, or the wealthy who had exploited them, and the institutions that seemed to perpetuate the myths that run counter to the reality the workers lived.
“Bellissima,” a black-and-white film in Italian with English subtitles, doesn’t have a very complicated plot. Maddalena (Magnani) lives with her husband (Gastone Renzelli) and young daughter (Tina Apicella) in a run-down apartment that borders an outdoor cinema and stage show. Maddalena works as a nurse, traveling near and far to give shots to people. But one day she hears about a Stella Film contest to find the prettiest 6- to 8-year-old girl in Rome for a new picture, and she joins the stampede of mothers who show up with their daughters in tow, all hoping it might be their ticket out of poverty. But Maddalena stands head and shoulders above them all because she turns into a stage mother almost instantly. She pushes her daughter (who’s only five), she schemes, she’s a “Dance Mom” at classes, and she’ll do anything—well, almost anything—to get her daughter noticed by the producer, even if it takes cozying up to one of the assistant producers (Walter Chiari), who has his own agenda.
But it’s the ironic ending and Magnani’s acting that make “Bellissima” something more complex and richly textured, along with Visconti’s direction and compelling cinematography by Piero Portalupi and Paul Ronald. The overlapping dialogue, the filming in tight quarters to show the tight spot the family is in, financially, and the parade of real people make every scene flush with realism. There are no glamorous shots of Rome, only a side most people haven’t seen. And Viscontin shoots much of the picture at the real Cincitta Studios, where all of the mothers bring their little girls and where much of the drama unfolds. In fact, real director Alessandro Blasetti plays himself, as the director who is holding auditions, with his real production manager (Vittorio Glori) and production designer (Mario Chiari) also playing cameos. Director Luigi Fillippo D’Amico and production manager George Tapparelli also appear. And so the film is ripe with authenticity. The peasant portions feature real people, and the movie lot portions feature real movie people doing what they do every day.
Still, when the final “cut” comes, it’s Magnani’s picture. She’s onscreen most of the time, and most of the time she’s emoting at a level that makes it hard to turn away from her. How she embraces so much emotion without her character edging into caricature or her performance picking up traces of the melodramatic is something would-be actors might be able to study and explain. Not me. I just know that “Bellissima” is an interesting and entertaining film largely because of her.
For a standard definition release, “Bellissima” features a number of scenes that have a surprising level of detail and sharp edges. Others—especially long shots outdoors—are washed out a little by the natural exterior light. But the pacing in this film is so quick and the contrast levels so strong, overall, that weaker sections are quickly passed over. “Bellissima” was restored and remastered for this DVD, and is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a simple Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono with English subtitles. There’s not much to say here except to praise the consistency of the mix and the sound quality. Whether we’re indoors or outside, there’s no variation in volume level or quality, and no hiss or pop to mar the monologues.
There are no bonus features.
“Bellissima” is a great introduction to the work of Anna Magnani and Italian neorealist director Luchino Visconti. The dialogue overlaps and everyone speaks quickly, so in all honesty it’s a challenge to watch in Italian with English subtitles. But it’s also rewarding.