What do Bellissima (Visconti, 1951) and The Unknown Woman/La Sconsciuta (Zamarion/ Tornatore, 2006) have in common? Apart from being examples of Italian Cinema randomly connected by my recent viewing, the answer is they both give pivotal roles to a mother/ daughter relationship. Pivotal or not, this wasn’t a theme I’d started out exploring. In fact, Bellissima first interested me as a good example of films that stick it to the movie industry; and down that poorly lit alley I’d edged as far as Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955). (About the link from there back to Visconti, more soon.) Meanwhile Visconti expert Henry Bacon explains that Bellissima is from a period when — in both right- and left-wing circles — Italians were fretting about the growing americanisation of domestic features. Despite a brilliant clutch of postwar films that instantly became part of world cinema’s claim to a canon of its own, for home audiences the fictional rawness of neorealismo came too soon after the war. Serious artists like Visconti were therefore already up to their eyes in the problems of achieving a recognisably Italian vision that — despite political and commercial pressures — remained at least personally honest. This is a big clue to a host of “arty” postwar European directors; but staying with Italy, it was a time when Fellini, Pasolini and Antonioni began feeling that audiences really deserved better than the newly developing compromises of neorealismo rosa. Like most such coinages, “pink neorealism” postdates examples of the genre. From what I can gather, though, it refers to a slew of often drab mid-’50s comedies featuring Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida and other conventional beauties. Bellissima’s leading lady, Anna Magnani — La Lupa — might have been longer in the tooth than these actresses; but, in whatever genre, her own startling attractiveness never owed much to convention.
Far from being drab, then, Bellissima retains much of the early commitment of neorealism, firmly nailing Cinema as cruelly exploitative industry and mindlessly popular craze. And, though I don’t always see the fixation with money as readily as bacon, it’s hard to disagree that Visconti’s films repeatedly present characters trapped by their sexual and socioeconomic histories. But what they also show as yet more imprisoning — and less narrowly part of a Marxist analysis — are our infinitely corruptible, often delusional attempts to break free of la forza del destino.
Magnani’s Maddalena is one driven working-class mother who just knows that, given a fair break, her seven-year-old daughter can become una stella del cinema. As early as 1945, via Rome, Open City, Magnani’s own real-life stardom had already redrawn the stellar map — so much so that, without having actually seen any of her films, some of us remember “Magnani” as a name mentioned by older people, but spoken in such awe we knew it meant: “Great Italian Actress/Woman of the People.” One such fledgling film lover had already made the crazy choice to be born into a British/Italian mining community while Il Duce was still a strong ally of Nazi Germany. Resiliently enough, though, she went on to be among the first of our generation actually to spot “the she-wolf” — on the prowl this time in The Rose Tattoo. Keeping up with Magnani was co-star Burt Lancaster — one of the few male leads anywhere who could be expected to stay the pace. Also illustrating Magnani’s territorial range, Daniel Mann’s 1955 film was based on the first of two Tennessee Williams plays written especially for her. As it happens, it’s another mother/daughter story: embittered widow (Magnani) tries to stifle daughter’s sexual self-expression until handsome trucker (Lancaster) turns up; at which point widow herself is liberated by (conveniently belated) news of dead spouse’s infidelities . . .
Struggling above waves of ancient awe and present nostalgia, one can see that, from the start, there was a downside to Magnani’s ferocious personal magnetism. On the set of Bellissima,for example, we know from various sources that both Visconti and neorealism’s resident writer-genius, Cesare Zavattini — as though having no choice — often bowed to the star’s “suggestions.” The most significant of these involve a night scene where, lacking transport home from Cinecitta, the tired mother — clutching an equally exhausted child who, it now seems, will not be the new Shirley Temple — sits at the side of the road. An overhead crane shot pulls slowly away, and only traffic noise accompanies the unvoiced misery — according to the script, that is. In the actual shoot, Magnani broke what for her was clearly an unbearable silence, letting out a stilted series of heavenward howls for aiuto.
Today it’s possible to see this kind of thing as part and parcel of two very long western centuries of romantic pessimism; and in Italian terms this could all be blamed on the early 19th-century poetry of Giacomo Leopardi. But whatever else we might feel about it, Magnani has provided us with an unforgettable moment: so unforgettable that Robert Aldrich freely rips off the idea for the The Big Knife. (I said I’d come back to that.) In a finely acted screen version of Clifford Odets’ play, the secretly marvellous Ida Lupino plays faithful but long-suffering wife to big Jack Palance’s mogul-mangled actor-husband. It’s the last few seconds of the film, immediately after the husband’s suicide; and again a central female character drops away under our gaze as she continues sending up to “us” — a suddenly and horribly over-empowered audience — her hopeless cries for help. Sympathetic viewers like Aldrich will see Magnani’s impro as consistent with the anti-glamour (later “method’) style of acting of which she was an important originator. Those less easily convinced might feel that such attempts at spontaneity work best in quicker, more throwaway scenes: for example, Maddalena, going about her work as a “nurse” — actually an untrained medical assistant who, as harassed wife and mother, is trying to make ends meet by giving injections to local diabetics. This, we can be sure, is unadulterated Zavattini and based closely on working-class lives . . .
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Born in ’56, Giuseppe Tornatore hasn’t been churning out films by the pasta-load; and this hasn’t harmed his ambitions to build on the best traditions of Italian cinema. But tradition is a tricky business. Like Fellini, Tornatore’s not mindlessly opposed to all American influences. The usual charge against him, though, is that, also like Fellini, he over-sentimentalises Italian themes — most of all in Cinema Paradiso, from 1989. (Traditions of our own making are probably the hardest to overcome.)
The Unknown Woman/La Sconosciuta certainly reveals Tornatore’s willingness to leave 1940s Palermo far behind; and into a posh 21st-century urban home in northern Italy comes nice-looking young Ukrainian woman Irena (Xenia Rappoport). From flashbacks showing her as a victim of repeated sexual violations, we slowly work out why Irena is worming her way into this nuclear family to look after young Thea (Clara Dossena). But with Tornatore we’re never simply filling in jigsaws. On the contrary, we usually find ourselves on mining expeditions, drilling down into grossly under-examined middle-class values; and as always there are more questions than answers concerning whatever we dig up. That’s why — though it is a recent enough movie to mention spoiler alerts — I think potential viewers still have plenty left to do, even after learning the plot. (Anyone unpersuaded by my argument for imminent disclosure should stop reading now.)
As things turn out, that background of sexual violation wasn’t just the nastiness of one blindly self-gratifying man, who, it seems, was killed anyway by Irena when she made her eventual escape. In fact, her gaoler was not only her pimp using her for his own pleasure, but someone employing rape instrumentally, repeatedly impregnating his captive so as to provide for a Western European black market in babies. Encouraged by some misread documentation and Thea’s apparent likeness to herself — the frizzy hair, most of all — we, the audience and Irena, think the couple she’s working for has purchased one of several children she bore in those hellish days of sexual slavery. But — and it is one of the bigger expectational switches — we later learn that, though Thea was indeed “bought,” she came into her adoptive home quite legally; and — as genetic evidence now proves — she is not Irena’s child.
If we’ve managed to stay the course, by this stage we’re more or less accustomed to moving carefully in the gloom, trying not to scrape moral knees and elbows on every jagged surface. It’s a realm of doubt we started slipping into long before Irena’s chillingly unjustifiable murder of Thea’s foster mother; and we entered it via some disturbing scenes involving “real” mother and daughter: Thea has a peculiar inability to break her own falls; and this means that the nine-year-old is literally a pushover at school. Irena therefore decides on a secret therapy, which involves tying the girl’s arms to her sides, pushing her down and urging her to stand up again — without, of course, the use of her arms. Tornatore presents a montage of maybe a half-dozen scenes showing this process; but even as Thea seems to be overcoming her odd disability — and even though Irena doesn’t seem to be enjoying any of this — from very difficult-to-watch footage we still have no directorial hint as to whether Irena has been cruel-to-be-kind or just plain cruel. All we know is that she has gone about her task with intense focus because she’s helping her child. But helping her to do what? To acquire basic survival skills? To spare the “daughter” from the sort of preventable but infinitely more terrible fall suffered by the “mother”?
In the final scenes, we see Irena leaving prison. A short way off at the bus stop is a pretty young woman with frizzy hair. An unglamorous and subdued-looking Irena has just finished paying her dues; but before things go any further we have a second or two to recall how murderously confused were her ideas of love. We remember, most of all, Irena’s special treatment for young Thea’s “problem.” However, the frizzy-headed young woman is not at the prison gates by chance, nor are her smiles of greeting forced or tinged with unspoken doubts. So we seem to end here with an uplifting tale of Family Love, yet one without any of the usual filmic evocations of either family or love to reassure us. And frankly, I still don’t know how, why or evenif this “works.” It could, after all, be accused of going out of its way merely to shock. On the other hand, maybe this is one of the better ways of freeing ourselves from all that blurred history of romantic pessimism to which I was referring. As I said, I don’t think knowledge of the plot does much to resolve such issues; nor am I planning to watch the film again very soon. But if I do change my mind, I’ll be thinking of the fact that, gruelling as it is, the movie lasts less than two hours, during which time we also hear an Ennio Morricone contribution to an altogether brilliant soundtrack. So I guess I’m actually accepting Tornatore’s biggest underlying suggestion: that “serious” movies are nothing if not morally testing; yet — in finally inexplicable ways — they can also please.