After watching every movie in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 27: Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas, the one thing you’re immediately left wondering is if actress Yvonne Sanson was canonized after her work with the director. If you thought Lars von Trier liked to show suffering women in his movies, Matarazzo achieves levels of sublime sadism. In each of the four movies contained in this boxset, Matarazzo puts the Greek-born Sanson through nightmarish situations that usually lead her characters to jail, asylums or convents.
In all the films included in this set, Sanson is one half of a tragic couple, her male counterpart is Italian matinee idol Amedeo Nazzari (think Errol Flynn with Laurence Olivier’s stoicism) who usually is fooled into believing Sanson’s characters have betrayed his characters, leading them both to abysses of extreme drama and eventual redemption at the hands of the director.
Matarazzo isn’t as familiar in America as Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini or even Federico Fellini, so it might come as a surprise to learn that his movies were the ones feeding the Italian box office during the post-war era and not those of his more famous colleagues. The reason is quite simple, Matarazzo gave audiences what they wanted. This came in the shape of the florid melodramas starring Nazzari and Sanson, which drew from neo-realism only by default. While his contemporaries were trying to show the world stories of humanity and sociopolitical relevance that lied within war ravaged Italy, Matarazzo was reminding people in his own country that life moved on, you could have excessive drama besides the larger chaos.
The director drew from the naturalistic settings of neo-realism to concoct his own excessive stories in collaboration with screenwriter Aldo De Benedetti and Titanus film studios. It was the head of the studio who originally asked Matarazzo to take on melodramas after he had shown proficiency in crowd pleasing comedies. If you ever have the opportunity to watch his first film, the Renoir-esque Treno Popolare, you’ll be surprised to see the turn his career gave. Treno Popolare is subtle and relaxed in the way Chains is contrived.
Chains marked the first time Matarazzo and his most famous actors came together, in the film Sanson plays Rosa, the kind wife of Naples mechanic Guglielmo (Nazzari). Their idyllic life (within the parameters allowed by the establishment) is suddenly disrupted when Rosa’s former lover Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi) appears and tries to win her back through blackmail. He threatens to tell her husband they are having an affair, unless she actually has an affair with him. If the premise doesn’t sound preposterous enough, fear not, for soon murder will play an important part of this tale and before soon, that infamous Italian law that made “crimes of passion” defensible arrives to the rescue of the characters’ lives.
Halfway through Chains, you must make a compromise and decide whether to fall for the film’s artifice (don’t let the shabby surroundings and lack of Technicolor fool you!) or simply give up on its silly plot. If you decide to stay for the ride, you’ll still be left wondering why Rosa simply doesn’t talk to her husband and tell him the truth. Or is the idea of probable infidelity too shameful and less important than blackmail? You also might wonder why isn’t Rosa beating the crap out of Emilio? Sanson, as beautiful as she was, certainly seemed like no weak flower. Her ample shoulders and fierce eyebrows could take on Joan Crawford herself! That nothing really makes sense in Chains yet you can’t help but be thrown into its tragic vortex sets the tone for what will come next.
In Tormento Sanson plays Anna, a meek young woman living with her father (Annibale Betrone), at the mercy of her cruel stepmother Matilde (Tina Lattanzi). Anna is having a secret, but extremely chaste, romance with Carlo (Nazzari) and after being reminded by Matilde that her house “is no place for a shameless hussy”, elopes with him. Soon she’s with child and Carlo lands in prison for a crime he, obviously, didn’t commit. It’s at this point where Tormento pulls out the big guns and falls into a dramatic delirium, with every coming twist more unfathomable and unpretentiously ridiculous than the previous one.
To get an idea of Matarazzo’s flair for extreme drama, this is the kind of movie where the character says “I’m begging on bended knee”, even as we see him kneeling down and pleading with raised arms. What’s fascinating to realize is that the director’s hand is virtually unobtrusive. He never gets in the way of his actors, his directors of photography and most importantly the story, which he understands is already larger than life. Matarazzo directs as if guided by something his characters would refer to as “the hand of god”. He’s merely at the service of the lurid screenplays but knows how to deliver them with enough precision as to avoid dullness and pain pornography.
In Tormento we get our first glimpse of the Catholic symbolism that the filmmaker alludes to with more ferociousness in consequent films. Here we observe a giant crucifix to which Matilde makes an oath she will break later on, reminding us that the more conservative the sinner, the crueler the sin. By the time Sanson’s character lands in a house for wayward women you might realize you just went through your entire box of Kleenex.
They say all great artists push their art to the ultimate boundaries and so did Matarazzo with Nobody’s Children, a tale of lost babies, evil quarry foremen and religious piety that rivals anything Puccini himself might’ve dreamt of. It makes sense that the Italian word for novel (as in adapted from) is “opera”, because this is precisely what this movie feels like. So big are the emotions, so intense are the passions and so tragic the finale that you’re left waiting for Sanson to burst into an aria halfway through her performance as Luisa, the young daughter of a quarry guard engaged to the rich Count Guido (Nazzari). His disapproving mother, the Countess (Francoise Rosay), and the wicked Anselmo (Folco Lulli) devise a plan to separate them and before you know it Luisa has entered a convent where she takes the name of Sister Addolorata (which literally means “in pain”).
Unlike the previous films, Nobody’s Children ends without reconciliation or redemption for any of the characters. In fact Matarazzo seems to be playing a very risky game of audience alienation as he pushes his characters’ pain to the extreme. This meant of course that he could bring Sister Addolorata and the Count back for some more fun, which he did when three years later he directed The White Angel.
Considering that all three previous movies were bona fide box office smashes in Italy, can you imagine what it must’ve been like for audiences to wait three full years before knowing what would happen to their beloved characters? This witty strategy to make audiences crave for your work between films isn’t the only thing that The White Angel foreboded, the film also brought psychosexual obsession with doppelgangers to prominence a full three years before Alfred Hitchcock directed the magnificent Vertigo.
In The White Angel Sanson not only plays Sister Addolorata, but also her double: the earthier Lina, a nightclub performer who catches the eye of the devoted Count who’s just recovering from three tragedies. Like Jimmy Stewart would do in the previously mentioned Hitchcock classic, the Count falls head over heels for this woman who reminds him of Luisa (curiously her hair and makeup resemble Kim Novak’s in Vertigo). Considering that the movie opens with a title card that reads “time soothes but never banishes our sorrow”, rest assured that Matarazzo hasn’t had enough of torturing his leads and The White Angel contains enough twists to fill six more movies.
This might also be the director’s biggest artistic accomplishment (if you watch the films in chronological order you get a sense of his aesthetic evolution) given how he displays extreme technical mastery of every single element in the film. Controlling all the twists in The White Angel must’ve felt like containing a storm in a glass of water, yet Matarazzo does it without unnecessary flourishes. In one of the most symbolic moments in all the films in the boxset, we see Lina waking up to find the space next to her in bed is empty. We get the idea that she spent the night with someone but it’s perhaps the first time that Matarazzo has given us a glimpse of raw sexuality. All of his other films seem to praise immaculate conceptions but on this one he even gives Sanson the opportunity to display her range. The overtly sexual Lina takes hold of the screen in the same way in which Sister Addolorata lights it up with her serenity.
In recent times it’s become fairly common to praise films that were once trashed by critics and the case here might be similar, except for the fact that none of these Runaway Melodramas hide political agendas, encoded messages about sexual liberation or even aesthetic advancements beyond their time. The one thing that makes these movies so valuable is their entertainment value and spectacular handling of “story”. Matarazzo never aimed for high art with these melodramas and you can sense this throughout the entirety of his films. However they serve as chillingly appropriate reminders that it was our need to be enthralled and entertained that first got us interested in cinema. The movies in this boxset remind us that when it comes to melodrama, camp lies strictly in the eye of the beholder.