It’s easy to enjoy Raffaello Matarazzo’s melodramas for the campy excess of their acting and story lines, but it’s more productive to take them seriously, I think — to see how cleanly and elegantly Matarazzo presents this bezerko material, with a visual style that reminded Jacques Lourcelles of Lang, Dreyer and Mizoguchi, and how perfectly engineered his narratives are, with every outlandish episode incorporated into a serene, symmetrical structure.
The new Matarazzo box set ( my New York Times review is here) from Criterion’s budget “Eclipse” line contains four of Matarazzo’s seven films with the towering star couple Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson (literally — Matarazzo’s mise-en-scene somehow makes them seem larger, both physically and emotionally, than any of the other characters on the screen), all subtitled in English for the first time : “Chains” (1949), “Tormento” (1950), “Nobody’s Children” (1952) and “The White Angel” ( 1955).
All four are also available for instant streaming on Hulu Plus, along with two other Nazzari-Sanson films not included in the set: “He Who Is Without Sin” (1952) and “Torna!” (1958). (“Torna!” is the only Nazzari-Sanson that was shot in color, though apparently the fading Ferraniacolor negative wasn’t good enough to use for a video transfer, and so the film is presented here in black-and-white.)
All that’s missing is the final film in the series, “Malinconico autunno,” which appears to have been a Spanish production and probably has some rights problems. Still, it’s worth the effort to watch them in sequence, not just for the interlocking plot lines (particularly of “Nobody’s Children” and “The White Angel”) but also for the evolving portrait the offer of an Italy emerging from postwar devastation into the economic miracle of the boom years.
Like Douglas Sirk, Matarazzo wasn’t a born melodramatist, and he arrived at this style after a couple of evolutions. His first film, “Treno Populare” (available as an Italian import), is an anecdotal romantic comedy shot mainly on location, with a realist vibe that suggests both “People on Sunday” and Renoir’s “Toni.” Later in the thirties he turned to more frantic farce comedies, of which I’ve only seen a couple (both of which surpassed my primitive Italian). And in the 50s he mixes his contemporary melodramas with costume pictures, including a very personal treatment of “The Life of Giuseppe Verdi” and the movie that may be his masterpiece, the massive explosion of suppressed eros that is “La nave delle donne maldette” (“The Ship of Damned Women”) both released in 1953.
There is certainly much more to unearth in the relatively unexplored Italian genre cinema of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, particularly among the work of Riccardo Freda, Vittorio Cottafavi and Mario Camerini. But this collection makes a great starting point.