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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Box Set. Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas.


Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas (Four Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

Italy: Raffaello Matarazzo’s, 1949-1955 (Criterion Collection)


One of the great pleasures of covering a DVD beat is opening another Eclipse set from Criterion, especially if, as in this case — a four disc box of postwar romantic melodramas directed by the lesser known genre moviemaker Raffaello Matarazzo and starring the then fabulously popular screen lovers Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson — it’s an anthology of filmmakers and actors about whom you’ve barely heard before. Ignorance doesn’t matter. You can usually trust Criterion and Eclipse to find something interesting and of high quality, and to pack it with care and with good, knowledgeable notes.

Opening an Eclipse set is always exciting. The subjects so far have ranged from Aki Kaurismaki to Alexander Korda to George Bernard Shaw, from Louis Malle’s French and American documentaries to Larissa Shepitko’s stark Russian dramas to the quintessentially French and urbane Sacha Guitry’s delicious comic pastries to Roberto Rossellini’s austere, remarkable historical films, to a treasure trove of Japanese cineastes ranging from the ‘30s films of directors Mikio Naruse and Hiroshi Shimizu to ‘60s firebrand Koreyoshi Kurahara, to lesser known works by the more famous Japanese masters Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Teshigahara. And gems or near-gems from the early, more neglected work of the great Ingmar Bergman.


Matarazzo fits right into this feast of more obscure cinema treats. He was one of the Italian filmmakers who were liberated by the postwar fall of Italian fascism, though in his case, Matarazzo embraced not the early neo-realism of Rossellini, Visconti or De Sica, but the kind of glossy, glamorous melodramas from which actor (and matinee idol) Vittorio De Sica had emerged to make his directorial poems of poverty and city life Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. Matarazzo, like Douglas Sirk (but with a different, less crystalline and impeccable visual style), made, in the late ’40s and ’50s, movies about romantic trials, quandaries and impossible loves. With his regular screenwriter, Aldo De Benedetti, he kept throwing awful obstacles in the paths of the handsome, mustachioed, a little thick Nazzari and the angelic Sanson, a Madonna of domestic anguish to rival the later Joan Crawford. (Bernardo Bertolucci later cast Sanson as Stefania Sandrelli’s mother in The Conformist.)

Chains. Tormento. Nobody’s Children. The White Angel. Thew titles almost say it all. Love, Suffering. Redemption. These movies were not only popular with Italian audiences on a level that the great neo-realist films weren’t. They were genuine smash hits. They seized the public’s imaginations and embedded themselves in the pop cultural zeitgeist of the time.

And, in turn, the more intellectual and progressive Italian film critics of the day, mostly rejected and despised them, for mostly political, partly religious reasons. The Matarazzo-De Benedetti-Nazzari-Sanson films all had social consciences, as did the neo-realist classics. The lovers were kept apart by corrupt businessmen, snobbish affluence, legal injustice and prejudiced parents. But, in the end, the hero and heroine looked to God and not social progress for their redemption.

That diminished these films in the eyes of the more socially-minded critics of the day, the ones who believed directors like Matarazzo and films like these were perhaps leading the masses astray. Not quite. Instead, indeed, they were entertaining the masses, giving them intense emotional experiences and maybe at the same time implanting a few lessons about the evils of social prejudice. But among some influential cinephiles, these films were ignored or ridiculed in their heyday, only revived and reevaluated when their initial economic and cultural impact had passed.

Now Amedeo Nazzari (he of hotheaded devotional love) and Yvonne Sanson (she of mournful eyes and self-sacrificing heart), can perhaps be appreciated for what they were then: movie icons of the dreams of the common people. And Matarazzo, their good shepherd, can be appreciated too. (All films are in Italian, with English subtitles.)





Chains (Italy: Raffaello Matarazzo, 1949) Three and a Half Stars. Rosa (Sanson), though happily married to mechanic Guglielmo (Nazzari), is pursued by an old flame who has become a criminal, then blamed and deprived of her family by the violence that results. A potent tearjerker, and the movie that made the lead actors superstars and Matarazzo a semi-Sirk.

Tormento (Italy: Matarazzo, 1949). Three and a Half Stars. More social constraints and another killing, as Anna (Sanson) suffers from the frame-up (for a murder) of Carlo (Nazzari) and from her stepmother’s tyranny. One of the most devastating of these melodrmas, with fate tying Anna and Carlo into knots.

Nobody’s Children/The White Angel (Italy: Matarazzo, 1952/1955). Three and a Half Stars. Another big hit and its sequel: a two part look at the torment, dark destiny and religious redemption of a romantic aristocrat, Guido (Nazzari) and his working class love Luisa (Sanson). With Francoise Rosay as the Countess. The most Catholic of these three tales of man’s (and woman’s) suffering and God’s long silence and final voice.

Extras: Notes on all films by Michael Koresky.

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