Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Bellissima as a series of formal, ancient gestures, in which an all-female chorus threatens to swallow a single female actor, and from which that actor determinedly separates herself first, and then—by force of will—also a second actor, her child. A cinematic rerun of Aeschylus’s revolutionary innovation.

  The chorus pushes forward toward a makeshift stage. The name of the fictional film is on the wall behind them—Oggi domani mai—but so is the name of the real film: Bellissima. The character of Director is also both fictional and real, Alessandro Blasetti.61 He walks through the crowd (taking great care over his acting, wanting to get the playing of himself right) to the tune of Donizetti’s “Charlatan’s Theme,” although he did not know this at the time. (Visconti: “One day somebody told him about it. He wrote me an indignant letter: “Really, I’d never have believed you capable of such a thing,” and so on: and I replied: “Why? We’re all charlatans, us directors. It is we who put illusions into the heads of mothers and little girls. . . . We’re selling a love potion which isn’t really a magic elixir: it’s simply a glass of Bordeaux.”) The director, the assistants, the producers, the hangers-on—powerful men with their powerful boredom—climb the elevated stage and prepare to judge, positioning themselves in attitudes of jolly contempt. In Italy, a woman is always the looked-at-thing, always appraised by that measure. Today, tomorrow—this beauty contest is as old as the judgment of Paris. The descendants of these men still audition veline62 each Roman summer. As any expat will tell you, the queues run for miles. Now, here, in postwar Italy, the first little girl lifts her skirts, gyrates, pouts and rolls her eyes, doing “an impression of Betty Grable.” The men smile. “You’re starting early!” cries Blasetti.


  Bellissima, in its initial conception (a story by Cesare Zavattini), was intended as a riff on the hypocrisy of cinema. Maddalena Cecconi (Magnani), a working-class woman from Rome’s urban suburbs, wants her daughter, Maria (Tina Apicella), to be a star. She will use whatever she has—her savings, her own sympathetic sex appeal—in the attempt to secure for her daughter what Italians call a raccomandazione di ferro.63 In the end, she gets what she wants but, in the same moment, turns from it: too much of the empty, cruel, and capitalistic world of Cinecittà has been revealed to her. But though the cruelty of Cinecittà was Zavattini’s neorealistic focus, it did not prove to be Visconti’s. “The story really was a pretext,” he admitted later. “The whole subject was Magnani: I wanted to create a portrait of a woman out of her, a contemporary woman, a mother, and I think we pretty well succeeded because Magnani lent me her enormous talent, her personality.” This is the same as saying Magnani’s personality overwhelmed Zavattini’s concept. To allow Zavattini’s moral tale to function, one would have to feel Magnani’s soul was actually in the hazard. Which is not possible. Magnani as a personality being too self-reliant, too confident, with too constant an access to joy. Even when she is being blackmailed, she laughs. Her character—played by anyone else—is a tragic woman pursuing the dreams of her youth through her child. But no hint of the female zombie, no trace of Norma Desmond, clings to Magnani. Everything she wants— certainly a little money, possibly a little reflected fame—she wants directly, in a straight and open manner, as men are said to want things. Her dream is strategic, not delusional. And in her mind, the child remains only a child, come tutte: “Well, at that age they’re all pretty.” This is her sensible reply to a calculated compliment from the slick young stranger, Annovazzi (Walter Chiari), a production assistant low down in the Cinecittà food chain who is willing to do certain favors in exchange for certain favors—the oldest of Italian stories. “Yes, that’s true,” he agrees. “But I prefer their mothers.” Annovazzi is younger than Maddalena, skinnier, and in a bland cinematic sense, better looking. But she knows as we know: he is the shadow of her shadow. On the other hand, he has access to the director, Blasetti. All this passes through Magnani’s face in a mannerist instant: a sharp glance in which she responds at once to the cheek of the boy and the perfect civility and necessity of the compliment. (It would be rude of him not to notice that she is a goddess!) Few actresses are so directly appreciative of their own earthy, natural attractions. On-screen, Magnani is the opposite of neurotic.


  The complicated cinematic partnership between straight women and gay men (Irving Rapper and Bette Davis, George Cukor and Joan Crawford) does not usually result in this easy, playful relation between woman and world. For Davis and Crawford the roles came laced with Grand Guignol, campy tragedy, the arch appreciation of female artifice. Both actresses traded what was transient and human in their work for the waxwork grandeur of eternal iconicity. I made her what she is today may be the ultimate Hollywood sentence. Laced always with a little bitterness, perhaps because the woman-muse of the gay Svengali is a double agent. Loving the same impossible men, living in the same impossible patriarchy, but always able to apply for the love and acceptance of the public. (She can become a national treasure.) Magnani—the sexy-maternal, working-class Roman—is Italy as it dreams of itself. Visconti represents a different Italy entirely: gay, aristocratic, Milanese. Inevitably the partnership had its poisonous side. Visconti on Magnani: “Left completely to her own devices, I have to say, she would never have achieved a happy result.” Hard to believe—her own devices seem to be all she has. Hyperani mate, frankly scheming, playing the odds, rolling the eyes, huffing, puffing, bursting the binds of script and taking her costars with her. Mi raccomando, eh?—uffa!—per carità!—abbia pazienza!—O dio mio!—come no?—meno male! Italian is a language packed with verbal fillers. Magnani makes musical use of them. No gap between sentences survives without an exclamation of one sort or another. And witness her making her way back through that chorus, Maria in hand, convincing each pushy mother she pushes past that it really can be no other way; giving each woman just what they need—smile or insult—in order to let her pass. In front of Blasetti at last, Maddalena turns on the charm but with a blatant Roman cunning that no one could mistake for coquetry. Blasetti: “But I said the child has to be six or seven years old, not less . . . she looks a bit small.” Maddalena: “Really? No, it must be the dress that makes her short.” The legends of Davis and Crawford are built on a camp proposition, equal parts adoration and contempt. All women are artificial. All women are, in the end, actresses. Womanhood itself is an act! But Magnani turns the proposition on its head. She is the incarnation of that paradoxical imperative: act natural. She is always and everywhere apparently without artifice, spontaneous, just another Roman woman come tutte. Which leads to a strange conclusion: the actor isn’t acting—the character is acting. For isn’t it Maddalena, and not Magnani, who puts on a bit of an act now and then, when circumstances call for it?

  One morning an eccentric acting teacher approaches the family. She wants to give little Maria lessons that Maddalena can’t afford. Alone in her bedroom, Maddalena considers the offer, combing her unruly hair and addressing her own reflection in the mirror: “To act . . . after all, what is acting? If I imagined to be somebody else . . . if I pretended to be somebody else . . . I’d be acting. . . . But you can act. . . . You’re my daughter and you can become an actress. You really can. I could have, too, if I had wanted to.”

  With Magnani, womanhood is utterly real—it simply does what it must to get by.


  Much Italian cinema revolves around the classic Italian philosophical problem: blonde or brunette? For Fellini, the answer was, usually, both. Antonioni solved the dilemma on an abstract intellectual plane by discovering Monica Vitti, the blonde with the face of a brunette. In Visconti’s Bellissima no counterweight is put up against black-haired Anna Magnani, for what counterweight could there possibly be? Her husband Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli) has the elemental, hulking beauty his name implies (a nonactor, he was picked out by the director’s assistant, a young Zeffirelli, from a crowd of bone merchants in a Roman slaughterhouse). But in character, in personality, he is no match for her.
He is left to plot weakly with his mother against her (“Mamma, I won’t even bother with her. She always does what she likes anyway!”), though only for the length of a lunchtime, as he eats the meals his mother still cooks for him. He seeks no real alternative to Magnani.

  Bellissima is that rare thing in Italian cinema: a film in which the woman is not a question posed to a man. Even more rare: she is not in question to herself. She finds herself perfectly satisfactory, or at least, her flaws cause her no more than the normal amount of discomfort. A less common trait in a female movie star can hardly be imagined.

  In the parrucchiere where little Maria is taken for a haircut:Hairdresser: (to Maddalena) I could give you a good style, too.

  Maddalena: Don’t even try, no one has managed that.

  Hairdresser: I could manage.

  Maddalena: (laughing) You’d waste your time!

  Like Davis and Crawford, Magnani is an unconventional beauty. Unlike them, she is beautiful without any cosmetic effort whatsoever, and moreover, without any interest in the cosmetic. Cosmetic beauty is not the type that attracts her.

  To wit: in the courtyard of her grim casa popolare,64 projected on a giant makeshift screen, a Hollywood blockbuster plays. Maddalena watches, enraptured. Spartaco comes to retrieve her:Spartaco: Maddalena, leave the cinema alone.

  Maddalena: Oh, Spartaco, you don’t understand me. Look at those beautiful things, look at where we live. When I see these things . . .

  Spartaco: Maddalena, it’s a fantasy.

  Maddalena: It’s not!

  We might expect to see up there Rita Hayworth in Gilda, peeling off those silk elbow-length gloves. But it is Howard Hawks’s Red River, a wild open plain, two cowboys on their horses. The object of Maddalena’s desire, a herd of bulls crossing a creek.


  The chorus of mothers gossip among themselves. The rumor is that so-and-so has a recommendation of iron (“He was saying how pretty the girl was . . . but he was looking at her mother!” “Ah, now I understand!” “That’s how it is these days!”); the fix is in; the auditions are worthless—it has all already been decided. A typical Roman inside job. Something must be done: they’ll unite to complain, it’s a vergogna, they’ll confront the producer! However, upon consideration, a more attractive, less violent, solution is found: each woman will look to her own recommendation. For one lady’s husband knows the director of the phone company (“What does that matter?” asks Maddalena. The reply: “He’s important”); someone else’s husband has a friend on set; yet another has a Cinecittà waiter in her family.

  And Maddalena knows Annovazzi. They meet in the Borghese gardens, dappled in leafy light, the scene of a Shakespearean comedy. “I never come here!” she says, for there exists a Roman life that does not include and never comes near the expats of Monti, or the Forum, the Pantheon, or even the Colosseum. The pair walk to a tree and lean against it like lovers. Annovazzi plays the cynic: “We’re so used to recommendations, both to making and receiving them. . . . In Italy we rely on recommendations: ‘Please don’t forget.’ ‘I assure you.’ ‘I promise you.’ . . . But who are we supposed to remember and why?” The only safe thing, he concludes, is to “put the person who needs your help in a position to ask for that help.”

  He strokes her arm, offering her the possibility of the sexual favor instead of the financial. She removes his hand, laughing. “No, this way is much better.” He takes her fifty thousand lire, supposedly to smooth the ground for Maria, in the form of small favors (“A bunch of flowers to the producer of the film, a bottle of perfume for the lover of the producer”). In the event he will spend it on a Lambretta for himself.

  “How shrewd you are!”

  “It’s a practical way of getting through life.”

  Even as she hands over her pocketbook, she knows he can’t be trusted. Later, when she discovers the deception, she only laughs her big laugh. It is a plot point hard to understand if you are not Italian. She pays him for a favor. He buys a bike. She finds out. But she is not angry, because he will still remember her, especially.


  “The big mistake of neorealismo,” claimed Visconti, “to my way of thinking, is its unrelenting and sometimes dour concentration on social reality. What neorealismo needs . . . ‘dangerous’ mixture of reality and romanticism.”

  He found the perfect objective correlative in the summer life of the Roman projects: reality on the inside, cinema in the outside (courtyard). Inside, Maddalena’s reality is stark: she earns the little lire she has going door to door, giving injections to invalids and hypochondriac ladies, a business that survives more on Maddalena’s charm than the efficacy of her “medicines.” Otherwise, alliances with other women prove hard to forge. In Italy, your mother-in-law (suocera, a perfectly vile-sounding word) is your nemesis, the other mothers are your competitors and the gossiping neighbors in the stairwell, your daily tormentors. But there is also a practical, strategic sisterhood, which makes itself visible in times of crisis. When Spartaco physically attacks Maddalena (she has spent money they don’t have on a dress for Maria’s screen test), the women of the housing estate invade the Cecconi apartment, another chorus, heavyset and loud-mouthed, outnumbering Spartaco, who has Maria in his arms and is trying to take her away, as his paternal property. Maddalena is hysterical: she screams and weeps. It is, as far as an expat is concerned, a scene of horrific domestic terror. A raging Spartaco calls the women balene, whales (the English translation—one of many poor examples—renders it “cows”), and they sing a whale song of overlapping accusation. Visconti, an opera buff, choreographs the scene as an echo of the RAI choir.

  “You only do it because I’m weaker!” cries Maddalena.

  “Spartaco, today you really crossed the line!” cry the whales.

  “I want my daughter to be somebody. . . . Am I entitled to feel this way or not? . . . She mustn’t depend on anyone or get beaten like me!”

  “Spartaco, she went all the way to Piazza Vittorio to a man with diabetes!”

  “I’m full of bruises! I’m all swollen!”

  “Spartaco, she’s made so many sacrifices!”

  “Maddalena, stop acting,” yells Spartaco, to the outrage of the whales, as Maddalena collapses into a chair. Frightened he may have gone too far, he releases the child to the protection of one of them, and runs from the house.

  “Women like me,” said the actress Anna Magnani, “can only submit to men capable of dominating them, and I have never found anyone capable of dominating me.” It is the sort of statement to make an expat sigh. What is this mysterious deflected Italian feminism that can only take power discreetly, without ever saying that this is what it is doing? And what is an expat to make of the sudden evaporation of Maddalena’s tears (Spartaco was right!) as her face creases into a coy smile? The whales, nodding appreciatively at the art of the thing, pass the child, hand to hand, back to its mother. The crisis is averted.

  Congratulations are due. Italy is truly the land of the sign and countersign, incomprehensible to outsiders. Maddalena begins to laugh.

  “We’ve won, darling. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t get an audition. My dear, do you think I’m working for nothing?”

  The director Vittorio De Sica called Magnani’s laugh “loud, overwhelming and tragic.” Tragic is a word men will reach for if called upon to describe women outside of their relation to men. In American cinema, a woman’s laugh is almost always flirtatious, a response to a male call. The unexpected thing about Magnani is that she makes herself laugh.


  In Italy, the right recommendation will get you through the door, to the top of the class, and behind the scenes. Maddalena’s has got her this far, into the editing room (“Mr. Annovazzi told me to come and see you”), where a beautiful young girl lines up the screen tests, ready to take downstairs to Blasetti and the producers. Maddalena, in the process of pleading for one more favor (she wants to be hidden in the projection room to watch her daughter’s test) recogniz
es the girl. Wasn’t she in that courtyard summer movie? Sotto il sole di Roma? The girl’s face contorts, a mix of pride and dejection. In Italy, a woman is the looked-at-thing, until people tire of looking at her, at which point she is cut loose:

  “I don’t make films anymore. . . . I’m not an actress. They only hired me once or twice. . . . as I was the type they needed. I even got my hopes up. And I lost my boyfriend and my job. . . . I convinced myself I was so beautiful and so great, and yet I’m stuck here, doing the editing. Nobody called me, so I’m here.”

  Maddalena is shocked, then calms herself. For Maddalena, the dream is the truth: “Surely it can’t be that way for everyone.” In the projection room, she watches, hidden in a corner. Maria’s film rolls. Her tiny face is elaborately painted. She wears the dress for which Maddalena received her bruises. Here are the men again, slouching in their chairs, making their decisions. But on the screen, Maria, stumbling over her words, begins to cry, then scream. A scream of real distress, of protest. The men, finding it very funny, set each other off in rounds of cruel laughter (“What a disaster!” “She’s a dwarf. Look!”), Annovazzi first among them.

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