Eye For Film >> Movies >> Bella Maddo (2010) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
When we first meet Bella, she is plucking out grey hairs. It's a situation many viewers will be familiar with. A little bit of tidying up, perhaps a dye job - these little things we do day to day to make ourselves 'presentable'. But for Bella it's more than that. Not only does she have age to contend with, she's also pregnant, and the combination of these two factors - together with a bitchy party guest only to happy to do her down - pushes her into a routine of drinking, wearing corsets, and starving both herself and her eight year old child.
The thing about soap opera, especially in short form, is that it needs to walk a very fine line, balancing melodrama and comedy and a genuine concern for the real issues. Largely thanks to the forceful performance of director/star Janice Danielle, an experienced stand-up comic, Bella Maddo walks that line perfectly. The film has some problems elsewhere, with wobbly acting and an ending that leaves the really difficult questions to one side, but it's eminently watchable. Played absolutely straight, it finds its comedy - and its horror - in the obsessions that underscore many real lives.
For these reasons, Bella Maddo deserves to be appreciated for itself, but it's the context of the film that will bring many viewers to it. Turned down for roles because her transgender background would supposedly be 'too much of a distraction', in a world where it's normal for transgender people to be played by non-trans actors, Danielle decided to turn the tables. Bella Maddo is a film with an entirely transgender cast, all playing non-trans people and deliberately avoiding the kind of stereotypes around which transgender characters are routinely built. Lit like a Fifties cereal advert and with a glittery boudoir that Barbie would envy, it can't be said to completely sidestep camp, but that's soap opera camp and it doesn't hinge on challenging the authenticity of the actors or their characters.
Of course, Danielle's decision could be dismissed as a gimmick, but it's an important statement. We no longer accept white actors being blacked up for the cinema (even if Jake Gyllenhaal seemed an odd choice as the Prince Of Persia), so why do we never see transgender actors in transgender roles? And given that there are so many transgender people out and about in the world, often quite indistinguishable from anyone else, why are transgender actors marked out because of their medical history and denied a place on our cinema screens?
Aside from its political significance, Danielle's approach is important because of what it contributes to the soap opera form. Learning to live in a gender role different from that in which one has been raised often facilitates a sharp awareness of just how many aspects of gender are theatrical in nature. This helps to emphasise the strangeness of Bella's need to be thin and glamorous when she has a husband who loves her just as she is. We can all see what's dangerous about taking it to an extreme (a scene in which Bella tries to force her daughter's head into a plate of broccoli takes a provocatively farcical look at child abuse), but perhaps we're less inclined to question why it matters so much in the first place.
All this aside, the main reason to watch Bella Maddo is that it's fun. Wobbly, melodramatic and sometimes unbalanced, like its heroine, but made with love and highly entertaining.Reviewed on: 15 Aug 2010
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