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Italian neorealism emerged with Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), Luchino Visconti's first feature film, and gained international recognition with Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) by Roberto Rossellini. Unlike Ossessione and Visconti's following film, La terra trema (1948), however, Bellissima (1951) is a comedy, and it marks a transition from neorealism to post-neorealism. The film belongs even more specifically to neorealism rosa (pink neorealism), a subgenre that (surprisingly) has its roots in the prewar, light comedies of the fascist period. Both types of films, despite their obvious political and aesthetic differences, shared a similar social message: one should maintain the status quo and forget about social mobility and the idea of an egalitarian society. That message, combined with the fact that pink-neorealist films developed the use of highly eroticized stars (in this case, Anna Magnani), meant that they were rather more successful than genuine neorealist films in creating a wide audience for Italian cinema.
Visconti's changed approach reflects major changes within Italy. During the three years between the release of La terra trema and that of Bellissima, Italy had undergone significant political change that strongly affected the cultural policy behind the production of Bellissima; after the Christian Democrats won the 1948 elections, neorealist films pur sang, like all films with left-wing social agendas, lacked government support and were deemed very risky investments. Viewed in this light, Bellissima can be interpreted as an indirect, political response to this changed political environment, particularly with regard to its choice of subgenre. Hollywood's rapidly increasing domination posed another key problem for the Italian film industry as a whole, and given this wider context, Bellissima can also be read as a critique of cinema as an institution.
Much of this social critique takes place at the narrative level. The film tells the story of Maddalena Cecconi, an untiring, working-class woman (Anna Magnani), and of her husband Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli) and [End Page 419] their young daughter Maria (Tina Apicella). The family is poor and struggles to make ends meet, so when Maddalena hears that the film director Alessandro Blasetti (played by himself) is looking for the prettiest young girl in Rome to star in his new film, Maddalena takes Maria to Italy's dream factory Cinecittà to join the crowd of middle-class mothers and daughters energetically trying to get an audition. When Maria is chosen as a finalist, Maddalena sacrifices everything to train Maria for the audition. She pays for acting lessons, ballet classes, an expensive dress, a haircut, and a glamorous photograph, and she even hands a large sum of money to Alberto Annovazzi (Walter Chiari), a go-between who promises to bribe key people at the film studio but buys himself a scooter instead. Maddalena's desperation is a source of income for many, and although she knows very well that she is being taken advantage of, she seems to think that no sacrifice is too big if it might help to ensure a better future for her little girl. No sacrifice, that is, but one: Alberto longs to have an affair with Maddalena, but she keeps turning him down.
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Maddalena is blind, however, to the fact that her daughter has none of the requisite talents, and her blindness reveals the desperation of the poor. The scene in which Maria is obliged to take a ballet class is instructive in this respect. As it turns out, Maria is only five years old, whereas the casting call was aimed at girls between seven and eight. The age difference between Maria and the other girls is made obvious by the corresponding size difference, and her tiny figure becomes the subject of a heated discussion between Maddalena and the ballet teacher as well as a visual trope throughout the film, emphasizing the impossibility of Maddalena's ambitions. That impossibility is further highlighted by the contrast between Maddalena and the fashionably dressed, middle-class mothers (who have been taking...