Le Notti Bianche (White Nights) Review
Born a noble into one of Italy’s richest families, Luchino Visconti, Duke of Modrone, would appear to be an unlikely figure to usher in Italian neorealism’s concerns about the people on the streets of post-war Italy, particularly as he is more often associated with epic romanticism and extravagance of his later films about the old Italian aristocracy. In reality however Visconti’s background is no less incongruous than that of Roberto Rossellini, previously a director of Fascist propaganda films or Vittorio De Sica, a distinguished matinee idol actor. Visconti’s contribution to the development of the neorealist movement is generally associated with the films Ossessione (1943) - a noir thriller considered by many to be the first neorealist film, predating Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta – and La Terra Trema (1946) using non-professional actors to depict a story about the exploitation of poor Italian fishermen. Often forgotten from this period of the director’s career and the history of Italian neorealism, Visconti’s 1951 film Bellissima has been unearthed for the Masters of Cinema collection and it proves to be a fascinating addition to both catalogues.
Perhaps the reason for Bellissima’s relative obscurity is that it indeed doesn’t fit easily into either the harsh neorealism of Visconti’s earlier career, or the romantic idealism of his later work. The films neorealist credentials speak for themselves - the original story developed by Cesare Zavattini, the script written by Suso Cecchi d’Amico. Set in Rome, a light street-comedy of a mother who is trying to get her 5 year-old daughter a part in a film and thereby help the family rise out of the poverty of their council estate home, Bellissima does however seem to be material better suited to De Sica or Fellini, lying as it does somewhere between Bicycle Thieves and The White Sheik. Seeing the film primarily as an opportunity to work with Anna Magnani however, Visconti places his own his own stamp to the material and brings his own experience of working in the film industry at this most influential point in Italian film history.
The announcement of the casting of a young 6 – 8 year-old girl for the new film by a leading film director does indeed bring hordes of mothers and daughters down to Rome’s Cinecittà studios, each of them eager for their offspring be selected for a part in the glamorous film industry that plays such an important part in their lives and seems to play out their dreams on the screen. For Maddalena Cecconi (Anna Magnani), it means even more than that. Not only is it a way of living the dream through her daughter Maria, but she sees it as an opening for her child to opportunities that she never had herself, and as a way for herself and her husband to rise out of the poverty of their surroundings in a busy noisy council block and build a long-cherished house of their own. Maddalena is determined to offer her daughter every bit of assistance she needs, working extra hours across the city of Rome as a nurse giving injections to diabetics in order to pay for acting tuition, dance classes and professional photographs. If she needs to pay a few bribes to bring the talent she sees in her daughter to the attention of influential people, she will do that also – but there is only so far she will go.
The roots of Bellissima are certainly in neorealism, Visconti depicting with some degree of authenticity the daily lives and struggles of ordinary people and even employing non-professional actors in important roles – Maddalena’s husband for example - if not in the key ones. And this is where the film deviates from the model, being primarily a star vehicle for actress Anna Magnani – and what a vehicle! The setting and script give Magnani ample opportunity to demonstrate her dramatic and comedic sensibility – struggling with a brutish husband who regularly beats her, fending off the advances of a young admirer at the studio who wants to help her get along, and dealing with the frantic pace of life and the characters that come along with trying to balance her life, her work, her housework and her efforts to advance her daughter’s career in the movies. If occasionally it does feel a little overacted (though how can you tell with all that forceful Italian gesticulation?), it’s a fact nonetheless that “acting” forms such an important part of Madallena’s real-life – not just in her love of movies as a form of escapist entertainment – but in her need to put on the necessary performances to get what she needs from people, not least her husband.
This would appear to be Visconti’s interest in the storyline and it’s one that he brings out marvellously, with a remarkable lightness of touch that is nonetheless forceful in its impact. Inevitably, it’s a film about movie-making and about the film industry, which can build dreams as well as destroy them – unthinkingly and cruelly. But more than that, it’s about life itself. In Bellissima, the movies – so important to the people in Italy during this period – provide that necessary sustenance of feeding their dreams and illusions that there is a better life out there, while the movie industry represents all the challenges that life presents and the setbacks that they will endure in trying to achieve those dreams. Maddalena’s relationship with her daughter – a wonderful thing that is the principal strength that supports the whole film, even through to its unrealistic ending – demonstrates those vital human characteristics, the lengths that people will go to achieve their dreams, the sacrifices they are prepared to endure, the little lies and deceits they are prepared to accept, but also the essential values they are not prepared to compromise.
Bellissima is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection and is #47 in the series. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
With excellent levels of detail, tone, contrast and sharpness, the print used in this DVD release of Bellissima has undoubtedly been beautifully restored. If there are some minor issues, they are fleeting and seem to be down to the quality of the original elements – the occasional scene that is slightly brighter than the others, a slight touch of flare or fading on one side of the image - the overall quality nonetheless is very impressive. There are however some questions regarding the actual encoding of the DVD transfer. There may be some shimmer or aliasing evident in Anna Magnani’s dress over the latter half of the film, but this was only apparent when an image was freeze-framed. There are however some other rather more problems with the image seeming to jerk slightly and make little jumps during movement. On a CRT display, this was rarely evident, the image only occasionally showing a little telecine wobble at the start and ends of reels, or transitions between scenes. On a computer monitor progressive display however, the skips appear in almost every scene, becoming a distraction that renders the film almost unwatchable. It’s possible that this could just be down to a faulty encoding on the checkdisc provided for review.
The audio track presents the original mono track as Dolby Digital 1.0, directly through the centre speaker. The quality is excellent, clear with a crisp tone and good definition. A faint level of underlying analogue noise can be heard during quieter passages and at the edge of the dialogue, but more than likely you’ll hear this only as the film starts and not notice it at all throughout the film, since it rarely causes any problems. For the age of the film, this is exceptionally good.
English subtitles are of course optional and in a clear white font.
A Proposito di Bellissima (31:42)
Wow! As an informed and interesting extra feature for a film, you couldn’t ask for more than this documentary. Interviewing many of the important contributors to the film and some of the biggest names in Italian film history - screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeferelli, both of whom worked as assistant directors on the film, as well as costume designer Piero Tosi and leading actor Gastone Renzelli (Spartaco) – they collectively provide a fascinating overview of the making of the film, its writing and casting, as well as some anecdotes about the on-set filming. It’s wonderful also to see their generosity towards their fellow contributors and you get a sense of the wonderful team spirit that must have existed to create so many cinematic masterpieces.
Interview with Francesco Rosi (10:31)
From the same interview session, Rosi talks more about neorealism, how he came to work with Visconti and the influence of that experience.
Original Trailer (3:51)
A long narrated trailer acts practically as a review of the film, drawing out its themes and techniques, insisting on its authenticity and realism in a manner that anyone can identify with it.
As usual, a substantial 32-page booklet is included with the set, containing an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and illustrated with screengrabs from the film.
As a new addition to the impressive Masters of Cinema collection, Bellissima is a winner all around. Whether you are interested in discovering a forgotten film of the important Italian neorealist movement, seeing a rare film by one of cinema’s greatest directors, interested in films about filmmaking, keen to see the film referenced in Almodovar’s Volver for its mother-daughter values, or simply just seeing a delightful, accessible and enjoyable film that celebrates real human values, Bellissima fits the bill.