Raffaello Matarazzo has been called Italy’s answer to Douglas Sirk: a director who made wildly popular mainstream melodramas laced with details so lurid and absurd that they could be read as satire. Criterion’s “Eclipse Series” box set Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas collects four of those, from 1949 to 1955: Chains, about a mechanic’s wife who has a life-changing encounter with a hood she used to date; Tormento, about a defiant woman whose working-class lover is falsely accused of murder; and the paired Nobody’s Children and The White Angel, which together tell the story of a couple that endures one impossible cruelty after another. All the movies are strongly similar, with the same stars—salt-of-the-earth Yvonne Sanson and upstanding Amedeo Nazzari—and with story-structures built around the separation of families, peppered with romantic musical interludes and heavy religious symbolism. Above all, these Runaway Melodramas consider the trials of women in a society where choices are limited and reputations govern fate.
Matarazzo made these films around the same time that his “neo-realist” colleagues Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti were influencing world cinema, and there’s a bit of a hardscrabble tone as well to Matarazzo’s films, which frequently pit venal rich folk against noble peasants. But the Runaway Melodramas films lack the raw artistry of Bicycle Thieves or Shoeshine. Matarazzo indulges in a few moments of lyricism—there’s a terrific chain-of-events sequence in Chains, for example, in which a song sparks a memory which leads to Sanson’s character briefly holding hands with her old boyfriend right as her young son walks by—but mostly, these movies are all about piling up plot twists and pathos, and delivering them so straight-faced that viewers can chortle at the overkill and still get caught up in the emotion of it all.
Chains shamelessly has the heroine’s children puttering around, begging their mother not to ruin the family by going to see her former lover—not realizing that the lover has threatened to ruin the family if she doesn’t leave. Tormento has Sanson playing a woman who retreats to a nunnery while her man is incarcerated; there, everyone assumes she’s a “fallen woman,” and treats her with unearned derision. But neither of those films are as knotty as Nobody’s Children and White Angel, which together play like a decade’s worth of Little Orphan Annie comic strips crammed into a three-hour space. What starts as a forbidden love story between the aristocratic Nazzari and the impoverished Sanson spins out of control when the lovers are driven apart due to the machinations of relatives and colleagues who have a financial stake in their lack of a future together. There are kidnappings, conspiracies, doppelgängers, underclass uprisings, and ironic reunions between long-lost relatives, all of which work on the audience because at every step, we know what the characters don’t. We know how desperately, tragically misunderstood they all are.
Key features: Nessuno.