Italy 1951, 114 mins
Director: Luchino Visconti

It is unfortunate that Bellissima is not better known outside Italy, as it is a film which, in addition to its merits as an antidote to La terra trema, confounds a number of stereotypes that have been built up round Visconti’s work and artistic personality. It is, in a vulgar sense, the most obviously ‘Italian’ of all his films, with extremely rapid dialogues which are difficult to translate and a fortiori almost impossible to subtitle without totally losing the flavour of the original. But it is the most subtle and elusive thing of all, the element of self-criticism and irony at the expense of its own ‘Italian’ quality, which has most effectively prevented it from being assimilated and appreciated by foreign audiences. For at its highest level it is a denial of all stereotypes, about Visconti, about Italian films in general, about neo-realism, and even about that sacred monster, Anna Magnani, who is the star of the film.

Bellissima opens with a piece of apparently gratuitous bravura – a radio concert performance of a Donizetti opera. The camera prowls among the sopranos of the chorus, middle-aged dowdy maidens and matrons grotesquely miming the mood of an unseen romantic action. This suggestive reverie is brusquely interrupted by the intercutting of the brash voice of a radio announcer, giving details of a competition for ‘la più bella bambina di Roma’ – ‘the prettiest little girl in Rome’ – wanted for a star part in a new film. Given Visconti’s well-known love of opera and the subsequent development of the satire on the world of Cinecittà, the contrast is clearly double-edged but on balance favourable to the old-fashioned world of the opera. As the unprepossessing ladies of the chorus mouth the word ‘bel-lis-si-ma’ the image evoked is one of a misty ideal beauty, transcending the banal physical circumstances in which the image is produced – a sharp contrast between the product and the means of production which Visconti maintains in relation to the cinema throughout the film. Even the idea, however, of the ‘prettiest little girl in Rome’ exists only on the level of the most extreme vulgarity.

Much of the significance of this opening credits sequence is, however, only latent. Its immediate function is simply to establish a tone of gentle asperity, which is maintained, more or less evenly, throughout the film. The aspirant Shirley Temples and their mums swarm into the studios, with Anna Magnani, struggling wildly in the middle, looking frantically for her mislaid daughter. The errant infant is discovered playing quite happily by itself near an ornamental pool in the studio grounds, and when her mother approaches her and begins to fuss over her and scold her, there starts up a mad operatic duet between a screaming and shouting Magnani and a tearful, bawling child who does not understand in the least what any of the fuss is all about. Most of the humour of the film is centred round the themes announced in this episode, the different and conflicting forms of irrationality and non-rationality in the behaviour of the monstrous gaggle of middle-class mums, of Magnani herself, and of the little girl, Maria.

Unlike the other mothers, Anna Magnani is a ‘donna del popolo’ – a ‘woman of the people’. This ‘people’ is not actually an invention of neo-realism as malicious critics have suggested. As a class, or non-class, comprehending broad strata of the population, it does exist, though more in literature than in real life. Broadly speaking, it designates everyone who is not rich, bourgeois or upper class, whether shopkeepers, manual or white-collar workers, or nothing in particular. Some elements of a partly fictitious class stereotype, probably due to Zavattini, who wrote the script, have crept into the figuration of the character played by Magnani in Bellissima, but basically, largely because of Visconti’s attention to untypical detail, the representation is autonomous and real and points a vivid but not implausible contrast between Magnani’s character and that of the world to which the others belong.

Her husband is an amiable, commonsensical man, with a steady but ill-paid job and not many ambitions, least of all the extravagant wish that his child should become a national figure. Ambition, coupled with a slight naïve snobbery, becomes her province, and it is channelled through the child. With no particular illusions about her competence she calls herself a nurse, which means that she picks up money going round giving injections to hypochondriacs, of whom she knows a good many. Her vision of the world is dominated by the movies and by the ambitions she has for Maria. The role of the movies in this vision is providential, almost supernatural. They are not only a passion but a hope for miraculous advancement, either through fortune (like the lottery in Naples) or skill (like football in Rio). Magnani’s slavery to the cinema dream and her superstitious hope have a background in popular life and help yet again to mark her off from the other mothers whose attitudes display a calculating bourgeois rationality. Times are changing, and what they have done is to transfer their ambitions from the middle-class world of theatre and ballet, to which they belong, on to a world which has the simple advantage of being quantitatively more lucrative, and which they mistakenly assume to be a part of their birthright.

In general, the more a character emerges as an individual, the more sympathy is accorded them. Even the episodic figures like the absurd, parasitic, out-of-work actress who battens on Magnani and persuades her to let her give Maria some lessons in acting are not seen as entirely grotesque. Comic hostility is reserved for the undifferentiated herd, particularly the mums. Real hostility, and not even comic, occurs only in the scenes involving the tycoons and parasites of the industry. It is here that a latent sense of violence and cruelty in Visconti’s approach comes, rather uneasily, to light, together with a curious attitude to laughter as a manifestation, not of amusement, but of aggressive isolation.

Bernard Shaw once made an observation to the effect that extreme happiness produces tears, and extreme unhappiness laughter. With Visconti, tears are the product of extreme human emotion, and often, specifically, of deeply felt solidarity with someone else or of pity. Laughter, which occurs frequently in his films (the most quoted example is the laughter of Tancredi and Angelica at the dinner-table in The Leopard), is by contrast aggressive, always an expression of isolation, often of fear or hate. In Bellissima the laughter is pure cruelty. It has nothing to do with the gentle art of comedy, nor even with bitter sarcasm. It is the only moment in the film in which brutality breaks through to the surface.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti (third edition, BFI Publishing, 2003)

Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Film Bellissima
Producer: Salvo D’Angelo
Production Supervisor: Orlando Orsini
Production Managers: Paolo Moffa, Vittorio Musy Glori
Production Secretary: Spartaco Conversi
Assistant Directors: Francesco Rosi, Franco Zeffirelli
Script Supervisor: Rinaldo Ricci
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Francesco Rosi, Luchino Visconti
Story by: Cesare Zavattini
Director of Photography: Piero Portalupi
Camera Operators: Oberdan Trojani, Idelmo Simonelli
Stills Photography: Paul Ronald
Editor: Mario Serandrei
Assistant Editor: Liliana Mancini
Art Director: Gianni Polidori
Costumes: Piero Tosi
Make-up: Alberto De Rossi
Music Composed and Conducted by: Franco Mannino
Music based on theme ‘L’elisir d’amore’ by: Gaetano Donizetti
Sound: Ovidio Del Grande

Anna Magnani (Maddalena Cecconi)
Walter Chiari (Alberto Annovazzi)
Tina Apicella (Maria Cecconi)
Gastone Renzelli (Spartaco Cecconi)
Alessandro Blasetti (himself, film director)
Tecla Scarano (the acting teacher)
Lola Braccini (the photographer’s wife)
Arturo Bragaglia (the photographer)
Nora Ricci (the ironing lady)
Gisella Monaldi (the porter)
Linda Sini (Mimmetta)
Liliana Mancini (Iris)
Teresa Battaggi (the snobbish mother)
Pietro Fumelli
Sonia Marinelli
Anna Nighel
Guido Martufi
Michele Di Giulio
Lina Rossoni
Lilly Marchi
Luciano Caruso
Vittorio Musy Glori, Mario Chiari, George Taparelli, Luigi Filippo D’Amico, Corrado Mantoni themselves)

Italy 1951
114 mins
Digital 4K (restoration)

Restored in 4K in 2023 by CSC – Cineteca Nazionale in collaboration with Compass Film at the Studio Cine S.r.l. laboratory

Sat 4 May 20:15; Sun 12 May 17:50
Mon 6 May 15:20; Fri 10 May 20:30; Sun 19 May 15:30; Mon 20 May 12:00; Wed 29 May 12:00
Journey through Italian Neorealism
Tue 7 May 18:10
Four Steps in the Clouds Quattro passi fra le nuvole
Tue 7 May 20:30 (+ intro by season curator Giulia Saccogna); Mon 13 May 18:20
The Children Are Watching Us I bambini ci guardano
Wed 8 May 20:45; Thu 16 May 18:20
Shoeshine Sciuscià
Tue 14 May 18:10 (+ intro by season curator Giulia Saccogna); Tue 21 May 20:45
A Tragic Hunt (aka The Tragic Pursuit) Caccia tragica
Wed 15 May 21:00; Sat 25 May 15:40
The Mill on the Po Il mulino del Po
Thu 16 May 20:40; Sat 25 May 18:20
The Bandit Il bandito
Fri 17 May 20:50; Sun 26 May 18:30
Germany, Year Zero Germania anno zero (aka Deutschland im Jahre Null)
Sun 19 May 18:20; Wed 22 May 12:30; Mon 27 May 15:00; Wed 29 May 20:40
Bicycle Thieves Ladri di biciclette
Sun 19 May 20:20; Mon 27 May 18:00
Bitter Rice Riso amaro
Wed 22 May 20:40; Thu 30 May 18:15
La terra trema
Sun 26 May 15:00; Fri 31 May 20:00
Lights of Variety Luci del varietà
Sat 1 Jun 13:15; Mon 10 Jun 20:45; Thu 13 Jun 18:00; Thu 20 Jun 18:20
Stromboli Stromboli, terra di Dio
Sun 2 Jun 18:15; Mon 3 Jun 12:00; Wed 12 Jun 20:40; Sat 22 Jun 15:30
Rome 11:00 (aka Rome 11 O’Clock) Roma ore 11
Tue 4 Jun 14:50; Fri 7 Jun 18:10; Sun 16 Jun 14:00; Mon 24 Jun 20:50
The Women of Italian Neorealism
Tue 4 Jun 18:10
Tue 4 Jun 20:35; Mon 10 Jun 18:10
Umberto D.
Wed 5 Jun 20:40; Sat 8 Jun 18:00; Wed 19 Jun 20:40; Sat 29 Jun 13:10
Journey to Italy Viaggio in Italia
Thu 6 Jun 12:15; Sun 9 Jun 13:00; Tue 11 Jun 11:30; Fri 21 Jun 20:50; Tue 25 Jun 18:15
The Machine That Kills Bad People La macchina ammazzacattivi
Tue 11 Jun 18:10; Sat 15 Jun 13:40; Wed 19 Jun 12:20; Thu 27 Jun 20:55
Miracle in Milan Miracolo a Milano
Thu 13 Jun 20:40; Sun 30 Jun 12:10

With thanks to
Camilla Cormanni, Paola Ruggiero, Germana Ruscio, Marco Cicala at Cinecittà

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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