Luchino Visconti’s film Bellisima (1951) and Pedro Almodovar’s film All About My Mother, or Todo sobre mi madre (1999) both delve distinctively into the overarching theme of “motherhood” in its various forms. Whilst Bellisima approaches motherhood in a focused, mother-daughter relationship dynamic, All About My Mother is multi-dimensional in its outlook towards maternity and its relation to womanhood and feminine solidarity.
An analysis of motherhood in Visconti’s Bellisima (1951)
Bellisima introduces its central characters by revealing the clash of interests between a young child and her passionate but ambitious mother. Maddalena, who had initially brought her daughter Maria to audition for famous film director Alessandro Blasetti’s new film, is frantically seen running around looking for her missing daughter. While the other girls are either seemingly enthusiastic about auditioning or obedient to their hopeful mothers’ orders, little Maria is found playing by a nearby pond, evidently against the wishes of Maddalena. This leads Maddalena into a fit of screaming, a tone she adopts over the course of the film and which perpetuates a feeling of irrational behavior in middle-class motherhood and a sense of constant confusion, consternation and conflict in her daughter Maria. Maddalena’s aspirations for her daughter are constantly strained against Maria’s faulty attempts at the execution of her wishes, oftentimes unintentionally. In that, several of the actions Maddalena takes to transform Maria are often in vain because of certain unexpected circumstances. Maddalena intends to get Maria a fresh haircut; however, upon an accident through the hands of a little boy acting as apprentice at the hair salon, Maria’s hairdo results in absolute disaster. Secondly, upon probing her into a ballet class in the hopes that Maria will achieve the same level of sophistication and poise that some of the older girls possess, Maria by way of her smallness is unable to meet those expectations. However, when insulted by the dance instructor, Maddalena immediately rushes to Maria’s defence, who is in tears and in need of comforting. Despite inflicting extreme, unrealistic expectations upon her daughter, Maddalena possesses the maternal instinct to be gentle and compassionate to Maria in times of need. However, this attribute is not completely fleshed out until towards the end.
Visconti, during one of his talks with the real Blasetti explained that it is “we [directors] who put illusions into the heads of mothers and daughters. It is we who take people from the streets and that is where we do wrong (Bacon, 55).”
It is this same illusion that Maddalena realizes in the projection room as she bears witness to the heartlessness and humiliation bestowed upon Maria’s raw emotionality as the assembled men laugh over a clip of the child bursting into tears. Maddalena’s fantasies of fame and fortune for Maria are shattered as soon as she is exposed to the true brutality of the film industry. This moment serves as an epiphany for it also awakens her fierce motherhood as she heartily embraces Maria and refuses the film producers the permission to sign the deal. Hence, once illusions have been shattered and reality accepted, Maddalena is brought to harmony with her daughter’s authenticity, and she willfully embraces it. In Bellisima, motherhood is seen as a force that can overcome the most gruelling of social delusions and realities.
An analysis of motherhood in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999)
Whilst Bellisima aligns the theme of motherhood with childhood, All About My Mother does so with variations of womanhood. While the wide spectrum of characters all predominantly happen to be female, what binds them together truly is the maternal role they play amongst each other, whether to a natural offspring or as an adoptive surrogate. Each of the characters, especially Manuela, accepts the gift of motherhood with the pain it brings along with it. In a scene where Manuela is reciting an excerpt from Truman Capote’s writing, she says that when
“God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation (Smith, 467)”.
Although Manuela and select members of her cohort accept the gift of motherhood at a given point in their lives, this gift has been brutally snatched away from them due to the consequences of their own actions, or self-flagellation of sorts. As Paul Julian Smith puts it, Rosa “will be martyred by the contemporary afflictions of unmarried motherhood and AIDS”, a dire consequence of her sexual relations with Lola which perhaps also serves as poetic justice for her deviations as a nun. Although she gives birth, by way of the consequences of her actions, she does not survive to lead a life of motherhood. On the other hand, Manuela, who has been a mother for over a decade, witnesses the grim death of her son. However, she is seen to embrace
“the lives, loves, and even babies of the women she meets, [but] she does so in the name not of Christ but of the Blanche Dubois played on stage by Huma: we are all shown to be dependent on the kindness of strangers (Smith, 470)”,
and also by adopting a helpless, pregnant Rosa into her home. Manuela, unlike Rosa, is provided with numerous opportunities to redeem and fulfill her role as a mother, even if in unconventional ways. Hence, the meaning of motherhood in All About My Mother is more open-ended and interpretive than that of Bellisima, often allowing its characters to unconventionally give up or adopt a maternal role in the lives of others as a result of their actions and circumstances.
In conclusion, while motherhood in All About My Mother is an all-inclusive narrative about how maternity is an immutable concept that can leave a woman’s life just as it can arrive, Bellisima explores maternal aspirations and expectations in an illusion versus harsh reality framework.