STUDIO: Entertainment One
MSRP: $29.98
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

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The Pitch

A mother obsessed with making her young daughter a star falls victim to the cruel side of the filmmaking industry.

The Humans

Written and directed by Luchino Visconti, starring Anna Magnani, Walter Chiari, and Tina Apicella.

The Nutshell

A devastating Italian neorealist version of Toddlers and Tiaras.

The Lowdown

Kiddie pageant reality shows like Dance Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras – and the recently added spin-off Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – are immensely popular in the U.S. One of the reasons for this is because watching these manically obsessive mothers makes people feel better about themselves. If you’ve ever watched any these programs then you’ve probably seen the children break down and cry at one point – from the pressure, from their mother’s cruelty, from just being a kid in a competition they don’t care about. It’s a loathsome, exploitative form of entertainment that’s only going to get worse before these kids all grow up to be cokehead vindictive mothers.

Italian filmmaker prophesied this phenomenon in his 1951 tour de force Bellissima. It’s set in the filmmaking world rather than pageants, but the callous treatment of children is still present. The film stars Roman national treasure Anna Magnani as Maddalena Cecconi, a film-obsessed mom who’s just certain her young daughter Maria is destined for stardom. Despite Maria’s lisp, average looks, and proclivity for playing in the dirt, Maddalena sneaks her away to a casting call under her abusive husband’s nose. She manages to make it through to a second audition, and this is when Maddalena’s mania begins to boil over.

She’ll do whatever it takes to ensure Maria gets the role. Even if she has to spend every last dime on singing lessons, dresses, and headshots. Even if she has to flirt and fork money over to an ambitious studio hand. And, most destructively, even if Maria doesn’t want to be an actress.I don’t want to make Maddalena sound too careless when it comes to Maria’s well-being. She doesn’t take her tanning or bleach her hair. She genuinely thinks Maria is beautiful and talented and wants the best for her. Her husband thinks her efforts are a waste of time and he lets her know with his fists. Their arguments are incredibly overwhelming and authentic feeling – I wanted to leave the room during one particularly intense fight.

Speaking of intense, the dialogue rarely stops in Bellissma. Most of it comes out of the mouth of Maddalena – it’s as if she stops rationalizing out loud why Maria should be a star, it won’t come true. The first time she shuts her mouth in the film is when, hiding in a projection booth above where her daughter’s screen test is being shown, she sees for the first time how merciless and insensitive the film industry is. It’s a powerful and devastating scene. The projector illuminating Maddalena’s face as it’s run through the gauntlet of defeat. The fallout of this scene haunting, painful, but altogether redemptive for Maddalena and her husband.

Anna Magnani is brilliant as Maddalena. She’s a whirlwind of misguided enthusiasm and determination that can explode at any moment. She’s also very natural in the role of a mother – giving forth this intense maternal tenderness and defense. Visconti never passes judgement on her, instead using his sharp realist approach to observe. Speaking of realism, a roomful of screaming Italian women is an awesome force. I had to lower the volume a few times for the preservation of my hearing.

Maddalena realizes the hard way that maybe this industry isn’t health for children. Running helpless kids through the wringer to prance and sing in front of judges (or directors) is the very definition of cruel and unusual. Visconti knew this 60 years ago. We can only hope the mothers on these wretched reality shows wake up as Maddalena did and save their children from lifelong embarrassment and an expensive coke habit.

The Package

The film is presented in 1.33:1 with a mono soundtrack. I’m not sure I could have handled all the Italian women yelling at each other in surround sound.

This is an absolutely bare bones package from Entertainment One. It’s great that they released this film for the first time in the U.S., along with Visconti’s La Terra Trema, but a featurette looking at the film’s significance would have been appreciated.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars