The Unluckiest Couple in Italy: Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson

Tormento
Tormento

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.

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Cabiria, Inside and Out: Nights of Cabiria (1957)

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Cabiria as drawn by Fellini (Source)

It may sound strange to describe a prostitute as “sexless,” yet that’s the word Federico Fellini used for the title character of his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria; to be more specific, he saw her as a clown.

Three years prior to Nights of Cabiria, star Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife, had played an actual clown named Gelsomina in his La Strada, and the resemblance between the two figures went beyond the superficial. “The relationship between Cabiria and Gelsomina is that Cabiria is Gelsomina’s fallen sister,” Fellini said in an interview with Charlotte Chandler. Moreover, he characterized both of them as Augustes, vulgar clowns, utterly antithetical to graceful, elegant white clowns in behavior as well as appearance. “White clowns have always rivaled one another in the luxury of their dress,” he wrote in the 1970 book I Clowns. “The Auguste, on the contrary, is always the same type. He never changes his clothes, can never change them. He is the tramp, the child, ragged and dirty.”

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