Judge Clark Douglas was forced to shame himself to save his family!
Four chronicles of men and women on long and serpentine roads to redemption.
I have to confess, I knew very little about Italian director Raffaello Matarazzo before checking out Criterion's Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas box set (being released as part of their Eclipse series). Today, Matarazzo is much less well-known than peers like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, but Matarazzo was at one point the most commercially successful director in Italian cinema. Best-known for his lurid melodramas, Matarazzo made wildly over-the-top films that were as despised by critics as they were loved by audiences (making him the Tyler Perry of his day, I suppose). Positioning him as a splendid entertainer whose films are worthy of comparison with those of Douglas Sirk and Lucio Visconti, Criterion has offered up four of Matarazzo's most popular films for rediscovery.
Matarazzo had actually been working in cinema for quite some time before he first turned to melodrama with Chains, the film that would launch his identity as a filmmaker who embraced joyfully absurd storytelling. Our story concerns a woman named Rosa (Yvonne Sanson), who has two young children and is happily married to a mechanic (Amedeo Nazzari). One day, a man (Aldo Nicodemi) from Rosa's past appears and attempts to persuade Rosa to abandon her family and come back to him. Rosa refuses, but circumstances soon spin beyond her control and force her to make some very difficult decisions. While the performances are naturalistic and the technical side of Matarazzo's filmmaking is actually pretty low-key, the storytelling piles on one wild twist after another. It isn't great cinema (it lacks the wonderfully florid touches that so remarkably enhance the stories of Sirk and Visconti), but it's a well-executed, rather enjoyable reminder of why soap operas can be so appealing.
There are a couple of entertaining thing about watching the films in chronological order: first, Matarazzo employs many of the same cast and crew members from film to film, and we get to watch the way they progress along with the director. Secondly, Matarazzo seems intent on topping himself in terms of pure craziness each time, meaning we get increasingly loopy contrivances from film to film. While some might find this grating, fans of melodrama in general will undoubtedly appreciate the escalating insanity. Chains almost seems restrained in contrast to Tormento, which follows a young woman named Anna (Yvonne Sanson) as she runs away from home to join her lover Carlo (Amedeo Nazzari). Alas, Carlo is accused of murder, Anna gets pregnant and is forced to return to her evil stepmother (Tina Lattanzi) for support. Tormento is a bit sillier than Chains, but faster-paced, relentlessly involving and amplifying the intriguing religious symbolism which played a small role in Chains.
The feverish plot developments come at breakneck speed in Nobody's Children, another tale about a young couple split apart and forced to deal with both an unplanned pregnancy and the plotting of a genuinely evil parental figure. Sanson and Nazzari are once again playing the key roles, and by this point their ability to sell even the most preposterous of plot developments has developed into something rather impressive. Matarazzo proves even more shameless in his emotional manipulation this time around, even going so far as to include a scene in which we're forced to watch a helpless German Shepherd choke to death in a burning building while a baby is being kidnapped by a villain. The religious element is dialed up yet again too, as Sanson gets herself to a nunnery and begins a new life of Christian devotion. Unlike Tormento and Chains, Nobody's Children doesn't conclude on a note of triumphant redemption, but that's probably because it's only the first half of an epic two-part saga.
The second half arrives in the form of The White Angel, arguably the finest film of this collection and the most overheated (an out-of-context line: "Go ahead and shoot—but you'll kill the baby first!"). It's difficult to talk about the events of the film without spoiling some key developments in Nobody's Children, but suffice it so that the Sanson and Nazzari characters are placed through another gauntlet of impossibly wrenching challenges. Early shades of Vertigo are present in a subplot involving a doppelganger, and the film easily matches its predecessor in terms of delivering an overwhelming torrent of frantic plot twists before reaching the finish line. As you might expect, this installment does indeed provide audiences the closure Nobody's Children so harshly denied, and stands as a demonstration of just how powerful Matarazzo's filmmaking could be. These are movies that must be taken on their own terms (basically, if you dislike melodrama as a whole, none of the virtues these films have will win you over), but they're quite enjoyable affairs that show off an underappreciated populist side of Italian cinema.
While less work is put into the transfers on these Eclipse releases than the more high-profile Criterion Collection titles, the films included in this set look pretty good. Only Chains is a little rough, suffering from some very soft shots and a whole bunch of scratches and flecks. The films get steadily better-looking from there, and The White Angel is actually very impressive. Audio is a bit rougher, as the first three films all contain a good bit of hiss, crackling and muffled music. Things are stronger on The White Angel, but still far from perfect. As usual, there are no extras included on any of the discs (though the slim DVD cases include a few paragraphs on each film).
I'm not quite persuaded that Mr. Matarazzo is a cinematic genius, but he's certainly a distinctive filmmaker worthy of our attention. "Fun" isn't often an adjective that applies to Eclipse releases (though many of them are excellent), but that's precisely what this unhinged four-film set is. Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas is a collection that's sure to deliver plenty of entertainment.
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Distinguishing Marks, Chains
Scales of Justice, Tormento
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Scales of Justice, Nobody's Children
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Scales of Justice, The White Angel
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Distinguishing Marks, The White Angel
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