22 April 2013

Post Facto -- Cinema Non-Paradiso: Make-believe and the movies in Bellissima

A still from Bellissima
uchino Visconti is universally recognised as one of the world's great filmmakers. His neo-realist works — the rough-edged La Terra Trema and the masterful Rocco and his Brothers — are on countless film school lists, and his lush literary adaptations — Lampedusa's The Leopard and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice — are regularly numbered among the world's best films. But his third film, Bellissima (1951), has never got the attention it deserves. Such praise as has come its way has been focused on the exceptional performance Visconti drew from its lead actress: the magnificent Anna Magnani, playing a movie-mad nurse obsessed by the idea of having her five-year-old daughter snag a part in a film. Magnani aside, the film has been relegated to the status of a 'minor work', a comedy. The great Pauline Kael, for instance, condemned it with characteristic pithiness as "full of contradictory impulses, and... marred by a too pat ending glorifying the wisdom of the common people".
I can see what Kael means about contradictory impulses — Bellissima does seem to speak in multiple voices — but I think that is its strength (more in a bit about that). It remains, for my money, among the finest films ever made about the complicatedness of parental ambition — and about what the movies mean to us.
Bellissima opens in Cinecitta, Rome's famous film city, where Maddalena (Magnani) has brought her little daughter Maria (Tina Apicella) to audition. But the child has disappeared, and we see Magnani wandering the grounds, searching desperately for her, even as a man with a megaphone announces the missing child's name over and over again at a piercing volume: "Maria Cecconi! Maria Cecconi! " From that frantic start, the film transports us quickly to the little girl being discovered placidly dipping her feet in a pool of water. The shift in tone is played for laughs. But it is also an instance of the multiplicity that seems to me to make this film so fascinating — the constant fluctuation between broad caricature and unbelievably nuanced characterisation, between a satirical distance and a warm, profound sense of empathy.
he most obviously caricatureish moments appear in the 'crowd scenes': Maddalena's nosy neighbours descending upon her as soon as they scent a domestic quarrel, or the masses of pushy mothers at Cinecitta, each trying to edge her child forward in what is clearly a cutthroat scenario. They all seem cut from the same cloth: petty and ridiculous, deliberately spreading rumours to dishearten the competition. They are not meant to elicit our sympathy or even interest — only our laughter. And yet, it was a real scene like this one that created the film: Bellissima (lit. beautiful) was conceived when Visconti was looking for a child actor for a different production and found himself surrounded by 4,000 mothers, each shouting, "Mine is bellissima!"
But Visconti's achievement is to zoom in on a woman who is very much part of this crowd, and turn her into someone we cannot dismiss. Maddalena's frenetic attempts to cobble together money for whatever she thinks will get her daughter the part — a fashionable haircut, an acting coach, a crash course in ballet, a bribe to a man who offers to send flowers to the director's wife — may seem utterly irrational, and just the sight of the child's wan, tired face as she jumps through these hoops is likely to elicit outrage from a contemporary audience. But it is a tribute to the film's humanising of Maddalena that as one plan after another collapses, what we feel is not so much relief for the child, but disappointment for her mother. Maddalena's actions might seem short-sighted, but her gaze is set on a screen in her imagination. And seen in the light of that dreamscape, her frailties seem utterly and resolutely human. This is a woman like so many we know, for whom the drudgery of real life is made bearable only by the thought that there is another kind somewhere out there — illuminated, however briefly, in the dark of the cinema. "It's so not make-believe," she insists to her husband, her trustfulness both vulnerable and determined.
The film's most devastating scene involves the shattering of that trust, with Maddalena watching in disbelief as the film crew dissolves into laughter while viewing her daughter's screen test. She stomps into the studio and tells them all what she thinks of them, grown men laughing cruelly at a child crying, but the damage has been done. The dream is broken.
Visconti could have ended the film here. But he adds a second climax: the director sends word that the crying girl is the one he wants to cast, but Maddalena refuses to sign the contract, having seen through the illusion that is the cinema — or the world. I am loath to sound as dismissive as Kael, but my subconscious self seems to agree with her about the ending: I first saw Bellissima ten years ago. When I watched it again recently, it was as marvellous as I remembered — but my memory had erased the final scene, preserving the film as I felt it ought to have been.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

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