New York, May 1953
Il can be truthfully said that Bellissima, the new Italian film at the Trans Lux 60th St., glorifies motherhood, but —all praise to Anna Magnani the star; Cesare Zavattini, the writer of the screen play, and Luchino Visconti, the director— there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in the picture. Sentiment, yes; vivid emotion, oh my yes; brillant handling of the relationship of mother and child most decidedly yes. Bellissima achieves something that has often been reached for in a film; but is seldom realized: a characterization of universal womanhood at its best. With Anna Magnani as the mother, this universal woman is also an earthy character, aggressive, quarrelsome, passionate, loud violent, with a broad streak of humor. She’s a conniver, who will double-cross her own husband if she thinks it wild benefit her children: she’ll do anything for the youngster but —and this is the crux of the story— she’ll make any sacrifice rather than imperil her child’s happiness.
Bellissima is a fiery drama which has so little plot that its hold on the imagination os nothing short of phenomenal. It’s the story of a movie-fan of a mother, who tries to win security for her five-year old daughter by getting her into pictures. Just as she gets the offer she has been phenagling for, she realizes that, psychologically, it’s not, the best thing for the child, and turns down the contract.
The mother does not put in this way in explaining her action to herself and others. Her abrupt refusal to accept what she worked so furiously to get is based simply on her fact that studio heads find her child’s screen test comic. They laugh at the kid, make fun of her looks and awkwardness, not knowing the mother is within earshot. They find they have a place just such a comically unattractive child, bu the mother will have none of it. It one of the picture’s great scenes, the greatest of all, she says, with the quiet dignity, the of her and the child’s father the little girl is the most beautiful child in the world, and she won’t have her laughed at.
Most of the action takes place at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, the center of Italian film-making, with a few excursions to the tenement home where Miss Magnani and Gastone Renzelli, as her husband, are saving and making plans for a home of their own. The mother doesn’t hesitate to use her savings, unknown to her husband, to pay for diction and dancing lessons and beauty treatments for the youngster and to bribe a studio hanger-on, Walter Chiari, a young man who claims to have the contacts that will further the chid’s career.
A great deal of this realistic Italian import is very funny, but there is no straining for humor, it’s the natural result of the mistaken ambition of a not too well informed mother and the efforts of a plain, untalented child to do as she is asked. But under the broad comedy and the sharp satire, aimed at too-ambitious mother and child stars in general, there is always an undercurrent of deep pathos.
Anna Magnani, who last year received the Italian Silver Ribbon, comparable to the Hollywood Oscar, for her performance in this film, lives up to her reputation as Italy’s most distinguished dramatic actress. In three scenes, in particular, she is superb. Two deal with her disillusionment with a film career for her child, and in one she tells off the studio heads in a wild burst of fury, the little girl clutched to her heart. In the other she refuses the contract in her own home, surrounded by her husband and neighbors, but this time her manner is one quiet dignity, following a storm of weeping on a park bench.
The third scene is in humorous vein and has Miss Magnani and Chiari, the studio opportunist, in a river bank, with the young man propositioning the woman and getting a most amusing brushoff.
The rest is an objet lesson in excellent casting. Besides those already mentioned, Alessandro Blasetti is a standout in the role of a director. He should be, since he is in real life one of Italy’s top film directors. Little Tina Apicella plays Miss Magnani child and she is just as she should be —plain, pathetic and childish. Luchino Visconti, the director, known as one of Italian realism, has given Bellissima vital direction, and Zavattini screen play is an understanding, witty human document. Dialogue is in Italian, with unusually spirited English titles.
Bellissima belongs among the top ranking Italian films. It is easily the best so far this year.