June 30, 2011

Eclipse Series 27: Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of 5): Chains **** ; Tormento **** ½ ; Nobody's Children **** ; The White Angel *** ½  ; SERIES ****

Chains (1949), the first film in Eclipse’s Raffaello Matarazzo set, begins simply enough: a stolen car breaks down and the thief, desperate to avoid apprehension, hides out at a mechanic’s garage. 388 minutes and four films later, 1955’s The White Angel closes the set with a standoff between a fearless nun and a group of ruthless female inmates who are holding an infant hostage.

These two scenes best illustrate the milieu of Director Raffaello Matarazzo, one of Italy’s most commercially successful filmmakers. Matarazzo’s films vacillate violently between the mundane and the histrionic, more than earning the set’s label: "Runaway Melodramas". Those who prefer subtlety in their storytelling have received fair warning.

However, adventurous cinephiles who wish to explore post-war Italian filmmaking outside the bounds of neo-realism and Federico Fellini should take the time to luxuriate in Matarazzo’s hot-blooded, operatic fantasies. At the height of his powers, from 1947 to 1957, Matarazzo cranked out nearly two films a year for Gustavo and Goffredo Lombardo’s Titanus Productions, often using the same screenwriter (Aldo De Benedetti). Critically, his films have been forgotten at best, derided at worst. But while the global cinema tastemakers were feting the works of Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, et al, middle-class Italians were lining up for Matarazzo’s films. Chains earned an enormous-for-1947 $1 million at the box office.

Chains opens with the aforementioned car trouble. The thief, Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi), takes refuge in the garage of Gugliemo (Amedeo Nazarri). While Gugliemo runs out to tow another car, his wife, Rosa (Yvonee Sanson) comes home. Unbeknownst to Rosa’s straight-arrow husband, Rosa and Emilio have a torrid history and were previously engaged. The pushy Emilio isn’t about to let Rosa slip through his fingers this time and begins stalking Rosa in a way that would make Scottie Ferguson blush. Stakes get even higher when Rosa and Gugliemo’s father-worshipping prepubescent boy (Gianfranco Magalotti) becomes aware of Emilio’s smoldering passion and misinterprets several gestures that seem to exist only to be misinterpreted. 

Soon many elements that will inform the rest of the Matarazzo films in the set are in play: wrongful imprisonment, child abandonment, maternal sacrifice, and accidental murder. But Chains is only the beginning, a mere sketch of the melodrama to come.

Next up is Tormento (1950), wherein Sanson plays Anna, a pure-hearted maiden suffering under the steely rule of her wicked stepmother, Matilde (played as a two-dimensional harpy by Tina Lattanzi). The film opens with Anna helping Matilde dress for a ball. Matilde sends Anna out of the room so that Anna won’t see where Matilde hides the key to her jewelry box. This small (admittedly obvious) set-up telegraphs everything we need to know about their relationship. However, Matarazzo and his scriptwriter feel the need to segue from this wordless bit of character development to an expository exchange between Anna and her ineffectual father. “She may not be your real mother, but you treat her like a stranger,” he scolds. “You still address her formally after ten years.” “Ten years of hell,” Anna replies. However purple the dialogue may be, it is no match for hot pink intensity of the plot that follows. 


Anna’s only hope of escaping her soul-crushing home life is her relationship with Carlo (Nazzari once again). Carlo refuses to marry Anna until he’s established himself with a business scheme that would seem so obviously misguided to anyone other than a Matarazzo leading man. Just a few minutes into Tormento, Anna finds herself pregnant and Carlo is hauled off for a murder he didn’t commit.

Tormento is easily the most “Matarazzo” of the films in the set and, consequently, the most enjoyable. Multiple plot points rise and fall within the span of a few lines of dialogue. Life-altering arguments are punctuated with heart attacks. Anna’s fortunes fall, rise, and plummet repeatedly, culminating in her being forced to enter a home for wayward women lest her daughter die of an unnamed, poverty-related illness.

The last two films in the set – Nobody's Children and The White Angel – are a duology. Sanson and Nazzari show up once again as lovers forced to run a gauntlet of obstacles and torments that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lars Von Trier film.

At the outset of Nobody's Children, Nazzari' s character Count Guido Canali has moved up the class latter and is the bourgeoisie heir to a mining concern.. His mother, another one of Matarazzo’s old crone matriarchs, resents his relationship with lower-caste Luisa (played by who else but Sanson?) and hires Anselmo (Wages of Fear's Folco Lulli) to confound her son’s romantic activities. Although no one in the family would appear to have any reason to trust Anselmo, he is given carte blanche in the company, to the point of controlling much of the finances and (obviously) siphoning much of these for himself.

With Nobody's Children, Matarazzo’s crazed plotting reaches a fever pitch. Within a few minutes, Luisa finds herself pregnant (out of wedlock) with Guido’s son, the baby is born, the baby is a toddler, Anselmo burns Guido’s house down and kidnaps the child, Luisa joins a convent, and the son is suddenly at a boarding school for elementary aged children. I thought a reel was missing or the disc had skipped.

But this is all just prologue for the rest of Nobody's Children and the startlingly bonkers White Angel, which features a doppelganger plot that culminates in the aforementioned inmates-versus-nun finale.

A big part of the films’ success is in their pacing. Matarazzo never lets a plot point rest too long, the story keeps moving too fast to question some of the more absurd twists. The emotional highs and lows offer as much a “ride” as the ostensible thrills proffered by today’s summer blockbusters.

However overwrought, the films never seem pat and never devolve into devices that are typically used to mitigate today’s high drama (rote comic relief, sassy sidekicks, etc.). The plots are ridiculous but never feel less than mature or adult. The type of manipulative melodrama I would resent in a modern film (by, say, Alejandro González Iñárritu) didn’t bother me here, perhaps because the tropes seem fresher and less shopworn.

Beyond the hyperdrama, the four films here are also marked by a dearth of any cinematic virtuosity. It’s a minor point, but worth noting simply because Italian film is often characterized by stylistic flourishes (I’m thinking of the obvious examples: Fellini’s playful camera and the handheld trappings of neo-realism). According to my notes, the camera doesn’t even move until about 37 minutes into Chains. Throughout, there’s nary a pan, dolly move, or tilt unless ABSOLUTELY dictated by the action. Plot reigns supreme. And I wouldn’t want my melodramas any other way.

A final note: the films wouldn’t work at all without the solid presence of Sanson and Nazzari. They anchor the preposterous proceedings with performances of subtle grace. The set is as much a showcase for these bygone matinee idols as it is for Matarazzo’s deft direction.

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Posted by maian at June 30, 2011 3:22 PM
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