Bellissimai is the story of a catbird that died and was resurrected as a woman that can't, for the life of her, shut up.
Maddalena speaks, talks, grumbles, blathers, descants and yammers continuously, tirelessly and without possiblity of parole. It's obnoxious, but then so is her lower-middleclass life, trapped in a god-forsaken post-medieval extension of Latin urbanity.
She inhabits what would be an insula, that ancient Roman sort of apartment building. For the longest time those didn't exist in the Europe outside of Rome, for the very simple reason that the barbarians couldn't for most of their history afford such grandeur (and I don't mean strictly financially - they couldn't afford them mostly intellectually, in the sense they were too mentally simple to be able to live so densely). Consequently, for the European mind (including the colonies) an apartment building starts with the amenties of modern times, it's a place with electricity and running water. It's something invented cca 1950.
Not so for Maddalena. In her country, in her culture, the Insula has been a presence forever, two thousand years and more. Sure, some had running water and sanitation, even in the times of Strabo. Most did not. People lived. Maddalena lives. She washes her child's hands in a little bowl, with water she's dragged up the stairs. Clothes hang out to dry under the windows, people scream at each other across the precipitous gaps in masonry, life resembles a colony of nesting birds perched atop some rock. They all live, and their living goes on after they've all died.
The deluge of oration serves the approximate purpose of walls and fences in a place where there's no proper walls or fences, or moreover proper walls and fences are impracticable. To quote,
In casa ti vengono!
which is her expression of disbelief at some pubescent boy who stopped in the street to look through her window while she sort-of freshens up (lots of hair brushing, no water contact).
Notably, she doesn't cover up, she just chases the kid away, but politely (per favore) and then carries on her vocal indignation but interrupts herself to notice that she's not even pronouncing "casa" correctly (she's just taught her daughter how to properly say soap and school, seeing how the little girl is being exposed to foreigners, to outsiders, to aliens and as such the tiny little rules and regulations on which the incredibly complex social structure relies are starting to crack up a little).
The act of being seen does not bother her, as long as she's managed to vocally arrange it in an acceptable context : being seen, improperly dressed, nude even, is a fact of life, just as impossible to avoid in the overcrowded conditions of The City as are the farts of the neighbour above or the
lovemaking copulative grunts and assorted noises of the young couple below. This habit, of repairing visible failure with oral murals is with us to this day, for Rome is mother to all white culture : I've just done it above, calling fucking "lovemaking", or moreover you'd have expected me to do it. Because you too live in some variation of Rome.
This story continues without respite or end in sight, her daughter's inability to ballet due to the obvious lack of practice is repaired by repeated assurances that the little girl is not scema (stupid, let's say), her exposure to the film set is fixed by specifiying that scuola not scola and in general everything becomes bearable when you sing about it - something that's banal in Latin but quite the discovery in English, or at least it was at the time of the Life of Brian.
In a sense Bellissima is the story of civilisation. In another sense, Bellissima is the story of stupidity in the womanly form. In the end, the two aren't so readily distinguishable as one might spuriously imagine.———
- 1951, by Luchino Visconti, with Anna Magnani [↩]