After backing the wrong side during the Second World War, and then being turned on by the Germans themselves, post-war Italy was a mess. Their already fairly agricultural and primitive society was slowed down, if not retarded by this hell, and between that and their evolution from a monarchy into a republic around the same time, Italy really was a mess. Italian cinema must have suffered, but the result was a new type of movie, which was so bare bones in terms of sets and budget that it was all about the story and the performances. And key to the freedom that the Italians so wanted to enjoy following their oppression, was their ability to express themselves in movies. So the theatres were besieged by movies about real life, with real characters, real post-war experiences and so forth (Rome - Open City, Germania Anno Zero). It was an interesting period of cinema, possibly even more honest than our new 'Big Brother' era where everybody is expecting that any moment they may have their fifteen seconds of fame and thus being natural is a long lost concept. And in this period we got Bellissima.
Blasetti is a film director looking for a young girl to play in his new movie. After an insane crowd vie for the auditions, the young Cinecitta - at the behest of her mother Maddelena - tries out and impresses the director. But Cinecitta's family is not particularly affluent, and the abusive father would prefer to save and be frugal rather than risk everything for such a long shot. The mother Maddelena, on the other hand, is prepared to do whatever it takes to make her daughter a film star - dressing her up, having her hair done, paying for classes and even bribing officials to see her become famous. But is it really the right thing for her to push her disillusioned sentiments and delusions onto her daughter to force her to have everything that she missed out on? Is it really what's best for the young girl?
Bellissima is a quaint little all-too-real morality tale of loss and regret, and disillusionment. With such a real setting, and such believable characters, the movie stands out as being arguably more realistic than documentary equivalents (for the reasons mentioned above). Anna Magnani (from Rome - Open City) takes the lead as the determined but unrealistic mother, who throws caution to the wind to chase the dream for her daughter that she herself let get away. Whilst she doesn't have the kind of beauty you would associate with the likes of Ingrid Bergman or Lauren Bacall, the plays to the realism of the character, and she certainly has the passion and presence to bring the role to life.
Probably known to few, 1951's Bellissima was one of the latter in a long list of post-war movies made on a shoestring budget to tell low-key stories of real people in real situations, playing the whole film-within-a-film thing to its best potential without ever becoming cheesy or distracted in theme. With a strong central performance and some interesting characters, it is a small piece of Italian cinema history, and whilst it will certainly not be to everyone's tastes, those that do like movies like Roma - Open City (which also shared the screenwriter) will love to finally discover it here on DVD.