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Sunday, October 5, 2014

BELLISSIMA (1951)

Everyone’s at their unexpected best here. Unexpected because warm, humanistic & funny aren’t what you expect from either forbidding grand maestro Luchino Visconti or from earthy, explosive Anna Magnani. Merciless honesty is more their forté. (You get that too, on the side with everything.) Largely shot in & around Cinecitta Studios, it’s the story of an open casting call for a cute little girl with Magnani as the über-Mama who’ll do anything to grab her sad-faced tyke a screen test. Just as long as everyone thinks she’s bellissima. Minus a firm hand, Magnani’s force-of-nature persona could swallow films whole or turn routine. But under Visconti’s steady gaze and careful shot choice (lots of long shots), she doesn’t hit a false note. (And still young enough for her looks to devastate as well as demand.) Watch her outlast her husband in a domestic fight, then instantly turn down the hysteria & waterworks once she’s won her point. Oversized, but true. Working off Cesare Zavattini’s clear-eyed script, both appalling and honest, Visconti juggles the comic & pathetic with the same edgy clarity. Even giving a romantic sidebar a painful kick in the shins when needed. All perfectly cast with nosy neighbors milling about; a frightened lug of a husband with a big heart; and Walter Chiari’s charmingly deceitful, ultimately heartless studio assistant. And if the ending now looks too ironically neat, it’s a minor demerit on a classic that’s also a great introduction to all its players in front & behind the camera.

DOUBLE-BILL: The director of the film within the film is Alessandro Blasetti whose FOUR STEPS IN THE CLOUDS/’42, also from a Cesare Zavattini script, is often held as a precursor to Italian Neo-Realism. (Not currently available Stateside, unlike this beautifully restored BELLISSIMA from ‘e-one.’) A loose remake, A WALK IN THE CLOUDS/’95, with Keanu Reeves & Anthony Quinn did it’s briefly hot director, Alfonso Arau, no favors.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Check out those two assistant directors: Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli who stayed with Visconti for SENSO/’54.

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