Luchino ViscontiItaly114 minutes1951B&WItalian
Visconti designed Bellissima as a vehicle for Anna Magnani's outsized talent, and the star and director obviously worked together at perfect pitch: "La Lupa" rampages magnificently as the stage mother to end all stage mothers, treating the scenery like a vast platter of antipasti. (This is the performance that prompted Bette Davis to declare "Anna Magnani is the greatest actress I have ever seen.") Magnani plays a working-class mother obsessed with having her little daughter chosen "the most beautiful child in Rome" in a Cinecittà contest. In pursuit of her dream, she jeopardizes her marriage, squandering all her money on dance lessons and custom-made clothes for her plain, talentless child. La Magnani is cyclonic as the blindly determined matriarch — she frequently improvised, as in the rending cry for help in the bench sequence towards the end — but her performance is only one of many reasons to love Bellissima. Pre-eminent Visconti scholar Geoffrey Nowell-Smith calls the film "in many ways [Visconti's] best" — surrender to Magnani, and you won't disagree.