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Melodrama a la Matarazzo

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.

70 comments to Melodrama a la Matarazzo

  • jbryant

    Defining art may be tricky, but isn’t the most basic definition of entertainment simply something that holds one’s attention in an enjoyable way? That’s pretty much in line with the Cordova definition, and covers just about anything you might like, from Antonioni to AMERICAN IDOL.

  • Alex

    “Art film” as a euphemism for film of some high degree of aesthetic quality seems to me a logically coherent and sometimes useful category of film, but general a trite uninstructive category.

    “Art film” as a film of some particular sort of mark artistic aspiration seem to less tautological9as aspirations may not be met) but very arbitrary and heterogeneous as the range of artistic aspirations is large. The trump card here might be a film with many aspirations of high pedigree like Lean’s “Doctor or Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath,” each manifest in it literary, per formative, socio-political, and production- component (e.g. cinematographic, musical, directorial) aspirations. These “Trump card” example show that the category is at least is not tautological and trite, at least for those who’d agree that “Wrath” and “Zhivago” ended up with very distinct claims to high quality (narrowly aesthetic, or more broad ranging). However, the category’s heterogeneity is a problem: pick Shakespearian drama as one’s criterion of high aspiration and films like Olivier’s and Zefferelli’s “Hamlet” rank as art films, pick historical instructiveness and Dieterle’s biopics might seem vindicates as “art,” pick declamatory theatrical virtues, stars value and socio-economic merit and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? rears its ugly head. Not a great category, except perhaps as a trap for the pretentious.

    Third, there’s Bordwell’s definition at once historically centered (as a mode of reaction to the classical Hollywood cinema during the first three post WWII decades) and analytically precise and therefore somewhat generalizable sort of film (i.e.,, that departs from the Classical Hollywood cinema like ensemble jazz of the same era from tin pan alley and show tunes — e.g., blur clear motives and tidy closures with complex and ambiguous ones, allows authorial voice to displace the transparent narrative). For this one of the hundreds of thousands of readers of relevant Bordwell books (principally the perennially highly assigned FILM ART, but also “Poetics of Cinema,” “the Classical Hollywood Cinema” and others) “Bordwell’s concept works.

    The entertainment and art are so variously related that I don’t see how the words can serve as poles of an illuminating contrast. One way of thinking about them that allows something of a contrast is to think of them as the marketing categories for fiction of a lot of book stores, where the formulaic, genre-centered books are in one part of the store and literature is in the other. As the formulaic/genre-centered books tend to capture much of what’s popular, and supposedly purchased with entertainment as motive, as the literary connote distinct (if overlapping)criteria and motives, as the two have audiences with different fictional horizons and modes and degrees of connoisseurship, and as claims for more than some sort of correlation of the categorical distinction and “quality” are no credible (assuming that there is any genre- and category-free basis for assessment at all), the distinction strikes me as somewhat relevant, by analogy, to film. Still, it a loose fit. It probably invites a probably excessively literary perspective on film; but, then again, there’s probably more literary perspective implicit in thinking about films than is obvious. And I’m not sure a narrative film and its criticism can healthily break with a considerable measure of literary influence. (Didn’t Orson Welles make some quip –perhaps in the long Bogdanovitch interview — about young post 60s directors making films based on nothing but other films? Didn’t Spielberg come back with a line about how important literature or books or reading or the like to his film making?)

  • “Didn’t Spielberg come back with a line about how important literature or books or reading or the like to his film making?”

    It was part of his Oscar acceptance speech for “Schindler’s List.”

    The term “art film” has a specific meaning when used by an exhibitor or in the trade papers. It refers to a hard sell or limited market.

    Here’s Variety’s memorable capsule review of “Moses und Aaron”: “Atonal voices crying in the wilderness. Little motion in this motion picture.”

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Alex: Bordwell’s definition of “art film” reads to me as nothing more than a list of characteristics of a large number of films coming out in the early sixties in Europe, then later in the US, apparently from the influence of the former. In other words, according to Bordwell, what was new in films equated to what was “art.” But art is not defined as what is new and different. The Bordwell art film concept seems to me absolutely meaningless.

    The exhibitor’s meaning is at least candidly sincere: “a hard sell or limited market.” Which is more reason to drop the phrase “art film” out of discussions or any kind of promotion, considering that the American masses are (or are supposed to be) thoroughly hostile to anything that has to do with art. Perhaps if they were not informed ahead of time that they were going to see “art” they might accept the movie or even possibly enjoy it. Well this is obviously a bit over-optimistic, at least concerning films like “Moses and Aaron.”

  • “Art film” in Bordwell-usage is just a label. It is just a label for a group of films.
    Bordwell doesn’t claim they are especially artistic, or related to art, or more artistic than Hollywood.
    It is just what the US public, distributors and reviewers have been calling these films for decades.
    People called them “art films”, and they played in “art cinemas” and “art houses”.
    That’s all it means – it doesn’t mean that the films are more artistic than Hitchcock or Preminger.
    As Hitchcock might have said, “Ingrid, it’s only a label!”

    We need some sort of label to talk about the films of Godard, Antonioni, Tarr, Hou, Angelopoulos and all the rest.
    I agree “art film” is a misleading term.
    Wish someone had called them anything else: a-films, foo bar films, phaner furcifer films – whatever.
    But it’s just an arbitrary label.

    We do need SOME sort of label to discuss this category of films.
    If people have a better one, I will gladly switch to it.

  • pat graham

    definitions, definitions … so which one’s the “aahhrrrtt” film?

    a) elegantly appointed beauty with sensitive, “soulful” eyes and a classical, clearasil-free complexion–a young juliet binoche, let’s say, in her pre-harridan period–suffers silently in anguish after her classical composer boyfriend wraps his car (alfa romeo spider veloce, bmw x roadster–something like that, presumably, though we never know for sure since the camera tastefully averts its gaze, just a solitary wheel spinning to signal catastrophe), but ultimately finds new purpose in bringing her paramour’s unfinished symphony or whatever to a triumphant conclusion, a critical success in all the finest concert halls of europe …

    or b) heavy metal groupie (a disheveled chloe webb) loses guitar-smashing paramour to motorcycle accident off the cline avenue underpass in squalid east chicago; after agonizing loudly and profanely as only a shrieking chloe webb can, she discovers her one and only has left behind an unfinished pop concerto that our groupie is sure will be hailed a “masterpiece” provided it gets a sufficient amount of top-40s radio play; surviving mainly on ho-ho’s and nickels and dimes bummed on street corners and in suburban train depots, she see’s the project to completion, whereupon … top o’ the charts, ma!

    so: no contest, right? * except it’s not about “plot,” since they’re both the same, or even execution, since only one of these films has all the a priori “class” signifiers * which, my point, is where the “aahhrrrtt” film ultimately takes us, and it ain’t among the unwashed * unless, of course, it’s in black and white and shot in grainy, washed-out 16-millimeter: now there’s an art film for you!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    An “art” film in the US when the term was common (1955-1965 key period) meant a film was

    1) foreign (in nearly all cases)
    2) more sexually provocative than Hollywood fare (in most cases)

    It also was sometimes used interchangeably with subtitled films.

    So the main elements were country of origin and content more than style or artistic value. Look back at what played in Manhattan – say the still extant Paris Theatre – and you’ll find an awful lot of French and Italian schlock of little artistic value, certainly compared to the best of some of the US masters of the period, but were considered art films because they fit the two criteria above.

  • @Mike I’ve always considered them (late Godard, Tarr, et al) contemplative or meditative cinema, that is if a label had to be applied. My view on the matter is, all films of quality will stimulate a viewer’s mind, and ask them questions. However, one constant among all the filmmakers you mentioned (in my opinion, of course) would be that they employ “slow-paced” aesthetics (though I personally don’t think Godard uses slow pacing, quite the contrary, so there are already holes in my definition) that ask the viewer to consciously meditate on the images and the themes in a manner far more pronounced than your average work of, say, Hollywood cinema.

  • pat graham

    what should be clear from my examples above: both “hypothetical” (except for the first) films deal with human loss and the varieties of agony attaching thereto * but only one is valorized, by what we might consider incidentals of class rather than the (largely identical) emotional/psychic reactions of the principals * the other’s properly a specimen, at best something for the social microscope, or maybe even a joke …

  • Alex

    jean-pierre coursodon,

    You miss that Bordwell’s criteria for the “art film” are variations on his criteria for the classical Hollywood cinema; but I guess the CHC bench mark isn’t readily apparent to one not already intimately acquainted with the CHC. (There’s a nice chapter in “The Classical Hollywood Cinema” on whether or not the New Hollywood cinema of ’67–75 is a break from classical Hollywood to the “art film” with an incisive comparison of “Blowup” and “The Conversation.”)

    Also, as Mike Grost writes, “‘Art film’ in Bordwell-usage is just a label. It is just a label for a group of films. Bordwell doesn’t claim they are especially artistic, or related to art, or more artistic than Hollywood.”

    As for that second, “aspirational” “art film” type of mine that included the likes of “Guess Who…” and “Dr. Zhivago” (which I deplore) and “Grapes of Wrath” (which I much en joy and admire), I mainly included it as an accommodation to what I though some people posters here had in mind in somehow considering “Guess Who…” as an art film. However, I now realize that this second type of mind not only burdens us with an inchoate category that few, I think would regard as descriptive of “art film”. It also is utterly superfluous as there already is a rote U.S. film journalism terms for film with the sort of high tone production values and thematic self-importance I was alluding to, and that i think well fits “Guess Who…” — namely ” prestige project” or ” prestige film.” (Not, once again, that a “prestige film” can’t be good, or even great.)

  • I have learned a lot from everyone’s posts.
    I never intended any more than the simplest, naive reference to groups of films by using terms like “art film” and “entertainment”.
    I’m sorry this led to controversy – it wasn’t my intention at all.

    I whole heartedly agree with Jean-Pierre, that good films, works of art, can be found in many different kinds of film.

  • joe dante

    Movies are a craft that incorporates art in order to exist.
    Good films, to me, are works of art, whether they emanate from studios, independents, “auteurs” or are simply the result of a fortunate mixture of talents. Why else would we love them so much?
    For most of us here a trip to the movies was no less heady or exalted than a trip to the museum, or to church.
    I don’t think Mike’s post was intended to provoke such varied reaction–although, let’s face it, that’s what forums like this are all about.
    Long live The Movies, in whatever incarnation.

  • William Messing

    This is a QUESTION. Several years ago, in Paris, I saw an Italian film or conceivably a French film which consisted of episodes. One very striking episode concerned a young female flight attendant, who, on a two day stopover, encounters, poolside, a man who picks her up. She does not realize it at first, but he is a deaf-mute. They have a brief affair and, he takes her to the airport so that she can board her next flight. He asks her to carry his portable radio to give to a friend of his at her next destination. The episode ends when, three minutes after takeoff, the plane explodes. I would greatly appreciate it if somebody could tell me the title of this film. It is possible that the film is Esercizi di stile but this film has 14 episodes with various directors and, unless I am mistaken, the film that I am seeking had far fewer episodes. Thanks very much in advance. If you wish, you may email me directly:

  • Nathan

    Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s either I mostri or I nuovi mostri. Maybe someone with a better memory can tell you which one.

    “Movies are a craft that incorporates art in order to exist.”

    Equally, one can say “movies are an art that incorporate industry in order to survive”. Or at least until now.

  • Peter Henne

    “why this arbitrary distinction between art and entertainment? Entertainment can be artistic (although I don’t much like the word)and art is often entertaining. Actually I’d go so far as claiming that art that has no entertainment value at all is somehow flawed.”

    Jean-Pierre, Thanks for your reply. By my own examples, I allowed that works can be both artistic and entertaining. For the record, I don’t think all of them have to be, though. Some might be artistic or entertaining exclusively. I’m only saying that the meanings of the words “art” and “entertainment” have different properties. Whatever they are, they don’t reduce to the same thing and are distinguishable from each other. You indicate this too in the second sentence of your post. I don’t see any reason why a work can’t have both sets of properties.

  • William Messing

    Regarding Nathan’s reply to my question. No, it is definitely not either I mostri or I nuovi mostri, both of which I have seen many times and own dvd’s of. Both of these excellent films are set entirely in Italy and the episode that I described and asked about is set in a country other than Italy, presumably, because of its climate a country in the Middle East, or possibly Turkey. The sabotage was against an airliner of a western country, possibly Italy or France.

    Mention of those1 two films reminds me that both Dino Risi and Ettore Scola are scandously underrepresented on dvd, at least in the United States. The fact that Una giornata particolare, A Special Day starring Loren and Mastroianni is not available in a subtitled version is disgraceful.

  • Nathan

    William, after a bit of checking up, it seems it is indeed I nuovi mostri, and it seems it is a lot of people’s favorite episode. There’s a youtube video of the episode here:

    The italian wikipedia page for I nuovi mostri confirms it (it’s the episode Senza parole):

    So not only are they unrepresented, when they are represented, as in your DVD of I nuovi mostri, it is inaccurately!

  • William Messing

    Nathan, you are completely correct. It is I nuovi mostri. Thanks too for the link to the You Tube link to Senza parole. I am tempted to excuse my error and poor memory on the grounds that the version of I nuovi mostri that I bought in Paris in August, 2009, contains only twelve of the fourteen episodes. But I should confirm this, before I am again mistaken. Thanks very much again!!!!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Just watched Matarazzo’s Giuseppe Verdi.

    And guess what? The core story is about his love affair (after he was widowed) with Giuseppina Strepponi, a leading soprano who later became his second wife. The singer had led something of a scandalous life, and Verdi’s father in law intercedes to talk her into not marrying him initially. This sacrifice becomes the theme of much of the film (although the ultimate result is not tragic).

    Reading up on a couple Verdi brief biographies, the course the story takes doesn’t seem to exactly track with the official record. It would seem that Matarazzo preferred to meld this biofilm as much as possible to what he had become known for.

  • Tom, I think the essence of Matarazzo is contained in one line from the Verdi film: “Only when it was too late did I realize how much she had sacrificed for me.”