Nowadays, actor Amedeo Nazzari may be best known among film fans for his appearance in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), playing a movie star who picks up the eponymous prostitute after a fight with his girlfriend. It’s no coincidence that the character’s name, Alberto Lazzari, is so similar to his own, because Nazzari himself was a bona fide movie star in Italy. Among his major box office successes were the melodramas that he made with director Raffaello Matarazzo and Greek-born actress Yvonne Sanson, beginning with 1949’s Chains — a film significant enough to be featured prominently in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso some four decades later. In an essay written to accompany the release of four Matarazzo/Nazzari/Sanson collaborations as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse line, Michael Koresky explains their appeal:
Though immensely popular, the films were dismissed by the critical establishment of the day: they were unabashedly soap-operatic entertainments, with plots convoluted to the point of near derangement, exaggerated Catholic symbolism, and a dedication to upholding the sacred family unit at any cost. Critics on the left deemed them reactionary; for Catholics, they were too overheated and sexual; and mainstream reviewers thought them frivolous and cheap—a poor man’s neorealist cinema.
That, however, is exactly what these rip-roaring, outrageously fun movies were designed to be: they followed the neorealist vogue for stories about earthy working-class people but were far from gritty and made mainly for suburban audiences, which gorged themselves on their sweeping, sentimental twists and turns. They were also emotionally rich and elegantly woven—captivating tales of crisis that spoke to postwar Italian audiences in need of catharsis. And today, after years of rehabilitation (by a group of French critics in the sixties and by Italian critics in the seventies), Matarazzo’s movies are admired for their gleefully overwrought stories and finely calibrated direction. These are treasures from the golden age of fifties melodrama, deserving mention in the same breath as the magnificent moonstruck movies of the likes of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Luchino Visconti.
In Chains, Nazzari and Sanson play mechanic Guglielmo and his wife Rosa, a happily married couple with two children. One fateful day when a stolen car is brought into Guglielmo’s garage, Rosa finds herself unexpectedly reunited with Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi), now a criminal but once, many years earlier, her fiance. Devoted wife and mother that she is, she refuses to have anything to do with him — but he’s determined to get her back. He starts appearing wherever she goes; he wheedles his way into her home by offering to become a business partner to the oblivious Guglielmo; and, as a last resort, he threatens to expose their (non-existent) affair unless she agrees to run off to Venezuela with him. Further complications, misunderstandings, injustices, drama and heartache ensue until, in the final minutes of the film, Rosa’s good name is restored and the once broken family is joyfully reunited.
Chains was soon followed by Tormento (1950), Nobody’s Children (1951), Chi è senza peccato…. (1952), Torna! (1954) and The White Angel (1955), the plots of which became increasingly convoluted, over-the-top, improbable — downright bonkers at times. Torna! provides a good illustration. Its basic story is the same as that of Chains: Sanson and Nazzari are happily married, Sanson’s manipulative old boyfriend shows up and tries to force her to return to him, Nazzari catches Sanson and the boyfriend in what appears to be a compromising position, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (The film’s theme song is even recycled from a significant scene in its predecessor.) However, while Chains isn’t exactly subtle itself, Torna! ramps up the (melo)drama to new extremes. It’s not enough for the boyfriend to offer himself as a partner in Nazzari’s business — he has to have the power to ruin him financially if he doesn’t get what he wants. Nazzari can’t just reject Sanson after discovering her supposed infidelity — he has to cast off their young daughter too, in the mistaken belief that she’s not really his. The last twenty minutes alone include an accidental shooting, a deathbed confession, a kidnapping by a mentally unstable stranger, an attempted stabbing and even a landslide, as if nature itself is determined to make life difficult for the couple.
Except in Nobody’s Children and The White Angel, its sequel, Nazzari and Sanson play different characters from film to film, yet they keep encountering the same sorts of problems, whether they result from the machinations of the villains around them or from terrible, terrible luck. Take Tormento for example: Nazzari, hoping to get an advance from a business associate so that he and Sanson can marry, learns that the man intends to cheat him out of his rightful earnings. The two get into a loud, violent argument, complete with threats of grievous bodily harm on Nazzari’s part, but at last they settle their differences and Nazzari leaves the office with half a million lire in cash. Things seem to be looking up — or they would be, if the business associate wasn’t murdered immediately afterwards. Naturally, Nazzari is arrested, setting off (or, more accurately, continuing) a series of unfortunate events for both himself and Sanson. (All this happens in the first twenty minutes of the movie, and only after Sanson has been kicked out of her home by her evil stepmother.)
Fate and other people may be against the central couple, but it must be said that the characters’ own personalities (which are more or less the same in nearly every film) frequently worsen or even create some of their problems. As the dispute with the business associate suggests, the typical Nazzari character tends to be hotheaded, especially when he encounters some sort of betrayal or other wrongdoing (as he inevitably does), and this can lead to violence with grave consequences. Along the same lines, he’s often rather quick to believe the worst about Sanson’s character without listening to her side of the story. To be fair, she never confides in him about her problems — when she’s being pursued or blackmailed by a former boyfriend, for instance — until it’s too late, despite having numerous opportunities to do so; instead, she acts awkward and guilty, even though she’s done no wrong, and the problems get deeper and deeper.
“You have an air of suffering about you,” Sanson is told in Chi è senza peccato…. — her character in a nutshell. She’s forever misjudged and mistreated, forever undergoing harsh trials as a result of other people’s sins or for the sake of her loved ones, like a sacrificial lamb. In Chains, she’s compelled to present herself as an adulteress in court in order to keep her husband out of jail, though it means subjecting herself to horrible insults from the crowd gathered to watch; in Tormento, she reluctantly enters a prison-like home for wayward women at her stepmother’s insistence, because otherwise the stepmother (who’s not merely evil but also rich) refuses to help Sanson’s sick little girl.
Chi è senza peccato…. combines cruelty, injustice, self-sacrifice and bad luck: After Sanson’s younger sister gives birth to an illegitimate child, the woman who’s supposed to be helping her slips away with the baby and abandons it in a church. As soon as Sanson finds out, she rushes off to retrieve it — and is instantly arrested, accused of being the mother and abandoning the baby herself. Because she wants to keep her sister’s name out of it (acting on the advice of a seemingly helpful countess with ulterior motives), she protests her innocence without explaining the full story, which lands her in prison. Nazzari, meanwhile, has been overseas working in Canada for some time, so when he hears the news, he assumes (again) that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Of course, after myriad further difficulties, the blameless Sanson is vindicated and a remorseful Nazzari realizes how wrong he was about her — as always. “You don’t deserve to even speak her name,” his lawyer tells him in Chains; the stepmother’s housekeeper in Tormento declares, “Your wife is a saint.”
Nobody’s Children sees Sanson become a nun who practically radiates purity and goodness — the titular white angel of the sequel. The latter film actually gives the actress the opportunity to show some surprising range, as she also plays the nun’s bad girl doppelganger (who turns out not to be so bad after all). Both of these movies subvert expectations to a degree, not least of all because Nobody’s Children has a distinctly unhappy ending, and the ending of The White Angel is a mixed bag at best; still, on the whole, they’re very much of a piece with the others. The same character types, themes and plot elements recur constantly in the Matarazzo/Nazzari/Sanson films. They’re populated by nuns and lawyers, by duplicitous old women and lecherous men. (In addition to Nazzari and Sanson, many of the supporting actors turn up multiple times, which adds to the sense of déjà vu.) Letters are used for blackmail, withheld from their intended recipients or produced to prove someone’s innocence; children are separated from their parents for one reason or another; there are storms, illnesses, fainting, unplanned pregnancies, prisons — even more than one prison wedding. Somehow, the films manage to be predictable and jaw-dropping in equal measure, and that’s what makes them so much fun to watch.
In addition to the six aforementioned titles, IMDb (which, it must be noted, isn’t always the most reliable of sources) says that Nazzari and Sanson both appeared in the 1959 film Il mondo dei miracoli and in the Italian version of a 1952 French film called Nous sommes tous des assassins. They also collaborated with Matarazzo a seventh and final time, in 1958’s Malinconico autunno. Alas, I was unable to find an English-friendly edition; there is an Italian DVD, but no mention of subtitles. (The other six are all streaming on FilmStruck, and Chains, Tormento, Nobody’s Children and The White Angel are available in the Eclipse set.) Fortunately, the Italian-language Wikipedia has a synopsis — again, not the most reliable of sources, but it certainly sounds like a perfect fit for this quasi series:
The captain of a freighter helps get a child out of trouble; he unwittingly caused damage to the elementary school he attends, and his mother is supposed to cover the cost. Befriending the child, he falls in love with the mother and offers to pay the damages. The woman soon reciprocates, but one dark day, the captain is accused of smuggling. Convicted, he promises to complete his sentence and then marry the woman in order to give his little friend a father.
The course of true love never did run smooth — not for these two, anyway.
This post is part of the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.