Love and death dance an endless tango in Raffaello Matarazzo’s emotionally lavish melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s, pulling the tenderized heartstrings of forlorn characters in every conceivable direction. Throughout Chains, Tormento, and the fascinating diptych made up of Nobody’s Children and The White Angel, cruel acts of fate and nefariousness are the devil’s double, darkly tragic jokes usually perpetrated by a combination of bad luck and evil outside influences. In turn, each outlandish dramatic confession (usually spoken by characters from their deathbeds) represents both the lethal sword and hefty shield for lost souls battling complete emotional destruction. But in Matarazzo’s stylized game of secrets and lies, the bodies pile up fast.
Matarazzo’s four films included in the Criterion’s “Runaway Melodrama” box set are structured around relentless disappointment—an unflinching permeation of pain so piercing that every plot turn feels like another mortal twist of the knife. The personal heartbreak is amplified by the fact that each film stars Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson, and even though the two actors play unrelated couples in the respective narratives, their casting allows Matarazzo’s overall themes of discontent to ripple through the series. It’s as if we’re watching different variations on one continuous thread of affliction. As the films progress, their images become a lost family album of emotional infallibility, where reunions and confessions spark exponential doubt and never offer full closure. These epic bouts of torment span years, decades, even lifetimes, and the extreme duration helps construct a fluctuating weather system of deep malaise that comes in only one type of precipitation: torrential downpour.
The romantic storm clouds gather almost immediately in 1949’s Chains, Matarazzo’s concise melding of neorealist aesthetics and diabolical post-war comeuppance. Rosa (Sanson) and her mechanic husband Gugiieimo (Nazzari) raise their two young children on the outskirts of town and seem to share palpable warmth. But when a thief randomly brings a stolen car to their shop for repair, a chance meeting between Rosa and old flame Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi) reinvigorates a one-sided obsession that uproots her sense of familial safety. Emilio stalks Rosa’s every move, invading her safe zones through the sly manipulation of her ignorant husband and judgmental neighbors. This sleaze ball may have once loved Rosa, but his horn-dog guise is almost entirely based on primal instinct in this fractured post-WWII landscape. Matarazzo makes a point to remind us Emilio has visited America in the past.
Like all of Matarazzo’s tortured heroines, Rosa can’t shake the constricting male albatross around her neck no matter how hard she tries. Emilio’s voyeuristic gaze grows more passionate and emboldened with each passing scene, making Rosa’s world spin off its axis one lie at a time. The past never stays hidden in Chains, but Matarazzo doesn’t limit the scope of suffering to simply Rosa or the adult world. What makes this critique of post-war trauma so stunning is how the emotional rot slowly seeps into the lives of Rosa’s innocent children, especially her kind young son, Tonino (Gianfranco Magalotti). We see the true cost of deceit through his deeply confused eyes, and the devastating trickle-down effect of parental distrust. When Tonino tries to stop Rosa from leaving their house to confront Emilio, it’s a great moment of self-sacrifice that is often a staple of Matarazzo’s heightened cinema of tears.
While Chains imagines a relatively contained universe, 1950’s Tormento expands the narrative to include increasingly elaborate narrative twists and coincidences, beginning an auteurist trend that only grows more fantastic with Matarazzo’s impending work. A seemingly simple wicked-stepmother scenario finds young Anna (Sanson) immersed in a living hell while her elderly father stands by impotent. Instead of letting his lover get continually abused, ambitious but broke businessman Carlo (Nazzari) impulsively whisks Anna away to Rome where they hope to start a new life. But in the pressure-cooker world of Matarazzo’s melodramas, a fresh start most certainly spells doom. A few stolen letters, violent outbursts, and sly acts of deception later, their entire world starts to unravel.
The well-meaning lovebirds become permanently separated when Carlo is accused of murder and Anna reveals she’s pregnant (child-bearing always happens at the most inopportune times), a double whammy that sends both down separate whirlpools of uncertainty. When Carlo states late in the film, “I no longer have faith in anything,” Matarazzo gives his prolonged separation anxiety a religious twinge; even the most devout Catholic can’t withstand the relentless echo of loneliness. Tormento turns insidious in its second half when the aforementioned stepmother returns to the fray, forcing Anna to make a sort of “Sophie’s Choice” that is as wrenching as it is incendiary. If anything, Tormento spells the turning of the tide for Matarazzo’s obsessions with institutional religion and emotional displacement, and how the two themes work as crippling bedfellows to the common man’s pursuit of happiness.
But Tormento’s caginess only hints at the pervasive psychological fragmentation of 1952’s Nobody’s Children and the forceful narrative audacity of its brilliantly surreal sequel, 1955’s The White Angel. The former begins with a collection of laborers working in the depths of a massive quarry, a perfect metaphor for the deep emotional holes Matarazzo’s lead characters will experience. Again, there’s a naïve young couple, wealthy Count Guido Canali (Nazzari) and poor Luisa Canali (Sanson), trying and failing miserably to overcome the unbreakable social codes established by the upper crust. Like Carlo and Gugiieimo before him, Guido needs to be a self-made man instead of relying on his rich mother’s inheritance. “I prefer to make my own way,” he arrogantly says, yet even his best intentions can’t prepare for the intangible evil eroding his relationship from the inside out. Once again, the physical separation of the lovers is essential for these menacing forces at work, primarily conducted by his meddling mother and her brutal foreman, Anselmo (Folco Lulli). There are more illegitimate children, deathbed confessionals, unpredictable rainstorms, and even a fire for good measure, all leading up to an ending that rips the heart out of each noble participant yearning for a fairy-tale ending.
Despite the crippling sense of parental failure and collective unease, Nobody’s Children only sets the stage for the baffling and intoxicating wackiness of The White Angel, a hallucinatory jaunt toward redemption for these embattled characters. The narrative picks up right where the first film left off, with Luisa now entrenched in a nunnery and Guido married to a snake of a wife who’s given him a darling young daughter. After a seemingly calm opening, The White Angel spins one reversal after another, including a deadly windswept motorboat trip through a monsoon, a seductive doppelganger that introduces themes a certain Hitchcock film would make famous a few years later, and a late sudden tonal shift that includes an extended sequence inside a women’s prison. To give away any more specifics would diminish the wonderful sense of romantic anarchy The White Angel creates, kind of a brilliant deconstruction of Matarazzo’s continuous thematic obsessions with fate. Let’s just say the film provides a perfect ending to Matarazzo’s treatment of love as a circular beast that ultimately leaves no man, woman, or child unscathed.
Matarazzo’s cinema may be immersed in massive amounts of suffering, but his films also provide a sense of resiliency that is both hopeful and sturdy. The wonderfully precise characterizations and costly thematic ripples anticipate Douglas Sirk and the Coen brothers, yet Matarazzo’s films feel wholly unique in terms of narrative pacing. Ebbs and flows in a character’s life aren’t just built around cause and effect, but a godly omniscience that is predetermined, prefabricated to see how far these people are able to bend. Throughout each story, Matarazzo never stops pushing his characters forward, always toward the brink of emotional implosion. While most of these people fall by the wayside, victims of communal indifference and extreme jealousy, the one’s willing to suffer the most always gets a second chance at happiness. There might be nothing harder than starting from scratch, but when true love is at stake, the Drama of all that jazz is more than worth the trouble.
The Criterion Collection has done the best they could with these rare films, clearing up most of the visual blotches and audible pops crisp for work that has never seen the light of day on DVD. Still, the master prints look pretty rough, and the black and white often turns a strange shade of grey during some night sequences. If I'm not mistaken, Nobody's Children may even be missing a few scenes during a late-sequence climax, but it's not hard to figure out exactly what occurred during those missing moments. Raffaello Matarazzo's suffering is, if anything, consistently punishing.
Michael Koreseky's liner notes once again provide both ample historical context and excellent analysis to compliment these harrowing films.
Raffaello Matarazzo’s breakneck series of films included in Criterion’s "Runaway Melodramas" Eclipse box set go from romantically tormented to psychologically nuts, and cover all the emotionally unstable bases in between.