Eclipse Series 27: Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas

Chains: Bound for Glory

Film history is replete with artists embraced by critics but misunderstood by the public. For Italian filmmaker Raffaello Matarazzo, it was the opposite. After working for almost two decades as a midlevel studio director of pictures that enjoyed varying success, mainly light comedies and adaptations of novels, Matarazzo broke through to box-office glory with a series of passionate, consummately constructed melodramas, made from the late forties through the fifties. Though immensely popular, the films were dismissed by the critical establishment of the day: they were unabashedly soap-operatic entertainments, with plots convoluted to the point of near derangement, exaggerated Catholic symbolism, and a dedication to upholding the sacred family unit at any cost. Critics on the left deemed them reactionary; for Catholics, they were too overheated and sexual; and mainstream reviewers thought them frivolous and cheap—a poor man’s neorealist cinema.

That, however, is exactly what these rip-roaring, outrageously fun movies were designed to be: they followed the neorealist vogue for stories about earthy working-class people but were far from gritty and made mainly for suburban audiences, which gorged themselves on their sweeping, sentimental twists and turns. They were also emotionally rich and elegantly woven—captivating tales of crisis that spoke to postwar Italian audiences in need of catharsis. And today, after years of rehabilitation (by a group of French critics in the sixties and by Italian critics in the seventies), Matarazzo’s movies are admired for their gleefully overwrought stories and finely calibrated direction. These are treasures from the golden age of fifties melodrama, deserving mention in the same breath as the magnificent moonstruck movies of the likes of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Luchino Visconti.

When he began making films, Matarazzo was not interested in melodrama. His 1933 debut, following some years as a journalist and then script boy, was Treno popolare, an early sound lark about several Roman petit bourgeois on a day trip to the country that was influenced by the German proto-neorealist silent picture People on Sunday (1930). Produced at the height of the fascist era, Treno popolare was nonetheless free of propaganda, and featured the first film score by the legendary composer Nino Rota. Matarazzo then proceeded to make a minor name for himself in the Italian film industry (alongside such major names of the time as Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia and Mario Camerini), often collaborating, during the thirties and forties, on mainstream comedies with the popular screenwriter Aldo De Benedetti. Though his career began under Mussolini, Matarazzo said in a 1964 interview that he had been resolutely antifascist.

In 1949, when Matarazzo met Titanus studio head Gustavo Lombardo and his son Goffredo, the era that would forever define the director, for better or worse, commenced. It was the Lombardos who had the idea to bring Matarazzo to Titanus and hitch him to dashing star Amedeo Nazzari. Italian audiences adored high-gloss melodrama (especially literary adaptations), and the Lombardos, following the international success of such neorealist works as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, conceived of marrying that movement’s roughness and humanism with the florid, sudsy trappings of melodrama. Matarazzo initially hesitated; though he was used to working in a mainstream idiom, he was reluctant to become known as strictly a maker of melodramas (often considered B movies). He finally agreed to the endeavor, though, and set out, with Goffredo Lombardo as producer and Nazzari and the Greek-born actress Yvonne Sanson (a Lombardo discovery, adored by him for her striking ability to simultaneously convey full-bodied eroticism and indomitable piety) as stars, to make Chains, with a script by Nicola Manzari and De Benedetti, an Italian cinema stalwart with a taste for crowd-pleasing narrative intrigue.

Chains would be the first of many Matarazzo tales of temptation, religious salvation, and female self-sacrifice, themes that underpin De Benedetti’s screenplay but come fervidly to the fore under Matarazzo’s direction. A shadowy, noirish opening gives way to a domestic passion play about the virtuous Rosa (Sanson), a Naples mechanic’s wife whose contented family life is thrown into upheaval when her old flame Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi), now a criminal, unexpectedly reappears. Though Emilio, whom Rosa was once engaged to but lost touch with after the war, becomes omnipresent in her life—lurking behind a gate when she drops her daughter off at school, turning up at the local fair, crashing her birthday celebration at a seaside restaurant—the unceasingly good Rosa steadily rebuffs him. Even intimations of an affair send her into brow-mopping paroxysms, her escalating guilt trip observed suspiciously by her preadolescent son, Tonino (Gianfranco Magalotti), the first of many adorable tykes Matarazzo would deploy in elaborate narrative games. It’s the moppet’s mortified misgivings about Mommy that threaten to unravel the tight-knit family unit; once Rosa’s husband, Guglielmo (Nazzari), gets wind, they enter a catastrophic state of affairs that forces Rosa to sacrifice her virtue and good name for the sake of her husband and children (the first of many, increasingly elaborate self-sacrifices Sanson’s characters would enact).

Chains established the hallmarks of Matarazzo melodrama: naturalistic performances, unadorned cinematography, spiritual rapture (here indicated by a Christmas made melancholy by the pain of familial separation yet imbued with hopeful prayer), and absurdly spiraling misfortune. The latter would come to encompass, in the films that followed close on this one’s heels, mistaken identities, wrongful imprisonment, babies stolen or held for ransom, and all sorts of emotional violence. The Lombardos’ theory paid off: these films’ combination of working-class characters and traditional values with sensational plots indeed appealed to the audience it targeted. Chains became the top Italian box-office attraction of 1949. And its title now seems appropriate to the way it tethered its maker to melodrama forever.


Tormento: No Pain, No Gain

Raffaello Matarazzo had been making movies for years before Chains, but the popular triumph of that film set the course for the rest of his career and bore out Gustavo and Goffredo Lombardo’s prediction that the public was craving a new kind of melodrama. Though Matarazzo was crushed by the negative critical response to Chains, he jumped into his next project with Goffredo. Chains’s principal cast and crew—actors Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson, screenwriter Aldo De Benedetti, composer Gino Campese, and editor Mario Serandrei—returned for Tormento (1950), which was released in theaters a mere four months after Chains and became another massive hit. All the passion and pain are here, only heightened, the plot contrivances more imperiously implausible, the Catholicism more central, and the final, well-earned catharsis more frustratingly deferred.

As the protagonist, Anna, Sanson gets even closer to abject martyrdom than in Chains, in which she sacrificed her good name to save her husband from prison. Here, she must make an even more difficult decision. Anna’s grief begins at the hands of the callous Matilde, her stepmother (a figure who would prove to be an archetypal Matarazzo villain). In the first shot, Anna crouches, Cinderella-like, behind this dragon lady, helping her squeeze her bulging bourgeois frame into an evening gown. Anna’s only source of respite from Matilde’s tyranny is Carlo (Nazzari), a financially unsettled businessman impatient to make his fortune and marry her. After Matilde catches Anna returning with Carlo from a clandestine date, the lovers impulsively decide to start a new life together in Rome, away from Matilde and Anna’s kindly if neutered father, Gaetano. Bad luck catches up with Carlo, however, when a scuffle with a business partner results in his being wrongly accused of the man’s murder and given a twenty-year prison sentence. Naturally, this is shortly followed by Anna’s discovery that she’s pregnant.

As would be even more dramatically (and perversely) the case in the later films Nobody’s Children and The White Angel, it’s the pain of separation from one’s family—and by extension, God—that is most responsible for the characters’ tormento. Yet despite the improbable obstacles these characters must over­come to achieve happiness (and do their part to uphold the social status quo), Matarazzo never overasserts his directorial style. As in Chains, he nimbly handles De Benedetti’s head-snapping narrative, maintaining composure and elegance in his mise-en-scène and eliciting naturalistic performances from his actors as they’re put through the wringer. Matarazzo felt that, visually, film should function similarly to theater, allowing the viewer’s eyes to scan the scene for the necessary information. “I cannot accept film in which the camera just goes where it wants to, starts from the left foot of the character, shoots an ashtray,” he said in a 1964 interview. Indeed, Matarazzo’s films are generally shot in straightforward, unostentatious setups; the camera moves only when narratively motivated (see Carlo’s argument with his backstabbing associate for an example of Matarazzo’s subtle expressivity).

Of course, Matarazzo isn’t above a little flourish, as evidenced by the plus-sized crucifix, conspicuous in the foreground, that Gaetano clutches on his deathbed. It’s a moment of religiosity that borders on the ludicrous, and a sign that the director’s melodramas were about to get even more exuberant. Call it neosurrealism.


Nobody’s Children: Separation Anxiety

A turning point in Tormento comes when its beleaguered protagonist, Anna, is forced into a church-run home for fallen women—it’s the only way her wicked stepmother will agree to care for her child. Actress Yvonne Sanson’s embodiment of such noble sacrificial lambs raises both Chains and Tormento to an elevated spiritual plane, but the 1952 smash Nobody’s Children completes her transformation into a saint. The appeal of Raffaello Matarazzo’s melodramas—narratives of suffering and salvation, aimed at a pious audience—clearly lay partly in their Catholicism. In Nobody’s Children and its sequel, The White Angel, the religious undertones explode to the surface—as does Matarazzo and screenwriter Aldo De Benedetti’s penchant for convolutions, coincidences, and calamities. With these movies, packed with enough incident for twenty, Matarazzo pushed the form as far as it could go. The resulting entertainments are a preposterous pleasure, what critic and screenwriter Jacques Lourcelles described as “baroque delirium.”

Nobody’s Children is based on a Ruggero Rindi novel that had been adapted for Titanus once already, in 1921, as a silent film. Indeed, the story is suited to silent cinema, pivoting as it does on drastic emotions and simple archetypes and icons. Shades of neorealism appear early on in Nobody’s Children, which begins at an excavation site, where overseer Anselmo turns a deaf ear to his underpaid workers’ concerns about being forced into the blast zone. But this setup is less a gritty look at labor conditions in postwar Italy than an efficient means of establishing the film’s hero and villain—soon enough, Guido (Amedeo Nazzari), a count and the quarry’s owner, arrives and, like Moses staying the slave driver’s whip, rights Anselmo’s wrongs, rehiring a sacked worker. Inevitably, Guido’s goodness will be put to the test; his tribulations commence when his mother—who, like all wealthy Matarazzo matrons, has a heart of pure sewage—conspires against him and his lover, Luisa (Sanson), the daughter of one of the workers and, if you ask Mommie dearest, a nauseating match for her suave son.

Nazzari and Sanson’s embodiment of the immaculate couple torn asunder by circumstance and the petty jealousies of others reaches its apotheosis here. As in Tormento, the two are allowed barely any intimacy before fate casts them to separate winds: the countess sends Guido from their rural hometown of Carrara to London and Belgium to buy equipment for the quarry, and while he’s away, she and the bitter Anselmo work together to ensure that he and his poor paramour never see each other again, intercepting Guido’s letters to Luisa and cruelly driving her from her childhood home. Luisa, on the run from Anselmo, soon learns she is pregnant and, with no word from him, believes Guido has abandoned her. Guido returns, finds no trace of Luisa, and thinks she has betrayed him. Add to these agonizing missed connections a house fire, an asphyxiated canine, a stolen baby, and a cleansing trip to a nunnery, and you have the most scattered, miserable Matarazzo family yet. And unlike Chains and Tormento, Nobody’s Children does not end in reconciliation. Those looking for catharsis, however, need not fear: this is only the first half of a grueling multigenerational ordeal, operatic in its ferocious grandeur.

The White Angel: Double Trouble

Made three years later, the sequel to Nobody’s Children, The White Angel (1955), picks up where the earlier film left off, on the precipice of profound despair. While traditional melodrama relies on symmetry and completion, Nobody’s Children, despite sending its main man, woman, and child through elaborate spirals of anguish, denied its audience closure. The White Angel finishes the job ingeniously. Though nothing would indicate that Matarazzo was attempting anything self-referential, the film so luxuriates in melodrama that it almost seems to be winking at its own byzantine ways.

As the second part of the diptych opens, Guido and Luisa are still separated (he is with his new family; she is in the convent she turned to for solace) and grieving over the first film’s climactic tragedy, which Guido blames on his new wife. An almost gratuitously wrenching sequence of events sets him on a journey that adds some supernatural spice to this already flavorful stew. At his lowest emotional point, Guido spots a woman on a train passing his who looks eerily like Luisa (played, of course, by Yvonne Sanson), despite her brassy demeanor, thick makeup, tacky earrings, and indecent leopard collar. The viewer can smell trouble on this doppelgänger dame a mile away, but for Guido she becomes an obsession; she represents hope, a chance for an epic do-over (Alfred Hitchcock would have a more sinister take on the idea three years later in Vertigo). If things don’t go quite as he has planned, at least woman number two will set the stage, thanks to some madcap plot turns, for the redemption that eluded Guido and Luisa the first time around.

The White Angel was another smash. Matarazzo’s popularity, however, wasn’t destined to outlast the 1950s. His final Amedeo Nazzari and Sanson film was 1959’s Gloomy Autumn, which did poorly at the box office. Between that year and his death in 1966, he made only four more films—including a failed attempt at a teen movie and one last melodrama, a flop—but in that time, his work, which had been dismissed as merely crowd-pleasing, began to find critical redemption. In the midsixties, the short-lived periodical Présence du cinéma ran a series of articles claiming that Matarazzo was underrated. And in 1964, a young Bernard Eisenschitz conducted a major interview with the director. It was finally published in 1976 (in the magazine Positif), the year that a group of young Italian critics held a conference on Matarazzo’s work, which they deemed “archetypal and unequivocally beautiful.”

As a result, Matarazzo’s films gained in prominence once more, even turning up regularly in the 1980s to entertain new generations of viewers as afternoon showcases on Italian television; they then all but disappeared again, until 2007, when a major retrospective was held at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. Cinematic perennials that speak to audiences of new eras in new ways, Matarazzo’s films have been seen over the years, variously, as reverent, bombastic, elegant, conservative, ironic, and frenetic. Matarazzo, on the other hand, saw them rather simply. As he once said, these are films about “hope . . . hope of a better world: this is the great aspiration, this the best entertainment ever.”

Special thanks to Paola Cristalli of the Cineteca di Bologna and to Antonio Monda for their invaluable assistance.

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