Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a 1945 British melodrama  from Gainsborough Pictures, but melodrama is hardly an adequate word to describe this truly bizarre film. This is beyond mere melodrama.

The story begins in 1919. Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert), a young convent girl in Florence, is raped. She seems to to recover well enough from the experience and her father arranges a marriage for her. Her husband is Guiseppe (John Stuart), a very kindly Italian nobleman. The marriage is a great success. A couple of decades later their daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) who has been at school in England travels across Europe to rejoin her parents. Angela is a very modern girl. She thinks nothing of traveling alone across Europe with a young man. Maddalena, who is pious and conservative, is deeply shocked.

Maddalena herself is not however all that she seems to be. She has a secret and it’s far more shocking than anything Angela could dream up. Maddalena is two women, each unaware of the other ’s existence. The movie amusingly assures at the beginning that this stuff really happens! Of course psychiatry in the 1930s was almost as primitive as it is today so audiences might well have bought the story.

Phyllis Calvert certainly does her best to sell the story. It’s a very challenging double role and she manages to not only behave but also to look like two different women.

Two different women means two different men and the two men in Maddalena’s life are definitely poles apart. Guiseppe is kindly, civilised and urbane. Nino (Stewart Granger) is a thief from the gutters of Florence. A handsome thief of course, but with a violent temper and insanely jealous and possessive. In fact the sort of charismatic adventurous rogue you expect in a melodrama.

How Maddalena combines two incompatible lives does stretch credibility but this is melodrama so you just have to go with it.

Matters come to a head when Maddalena does one of her regular disappearing acts but this time Angela is determined to unravel the mystery. In doing so she places herself in considerable danger, danger to which she is (with the over-confidence of youth) utterly oblivious.

It’s not only Maddalena’s happiness that is at stake. There are also her two men. Nino is a scoundrel but he’s crazy in love with her. There’s also Nino’s smooth and unscrupulous brother, Sandro (Peter Glenville) not to mention Angela’s young man (who’s actually a respectable and thoroughly nice young fellow). And there’s Nino’s other woman, who keeps his bed warm during Maddalena’s disappearances.

There’s some gloriously delicious psychobabble here. The story is ludicrous but it’s told with style and it’s sheer outrageousness wins us over. We believe because we want to believe because the idea is just so much fun.

Phyllis Calvert throws herself into her roles with enthusiasm, as the ultra-respectable Roman matron and as her alter-ego, the fiery and very passionate peasant girl.

If you can buy her performance there’s no reason not to buy Stewart Granger as the handsome and dangerous criminal Nino. James Mason was usually Gainsborough’s go-to guy for these roles but I guess they figured that he might have had trouble convincing as an Italian bravo. Stewart Granger has the dark good looks to just about get away with it.

Patricia Roc is enjoyable as the high-spirited Angela.

Of course Gainsborough’s melodramas were notorious for pushing the edge of the censorship envelope. This ones pushes it farther than most. There’s just no way of avoiding the fact that Maddalena is having a sexual relationship, and a rather steamy one, with Nino. And the movie doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise. It positively wallows in the sexual titillation of Maddalena’s adultery. There are also hints of white slavery (which seems to be Sandro’s plan for Angela), not to mention Patricia Roc swanning about in some breathtakingly revealing underwear (in the kind of totally gratuitous scene that only Gainsborough seemed to be able to get away with). And while the opening rape scene is mostly implied we’re not left in the slightest doubt as to what has happened.

There’s also some obvious gothic content. This is not a horror film but it will certainly appeal to gothic horror fans, and it’s actually stronger stuff than any British horror movie would go near until Hammer’s forays into the genre in the mid-50s. There’s also illicit and perverse sexual content here that would also have terrified most British film-makers of that era.

The nature of the story meant that the plot could only be resolved in one way and it’s a way that modern audiences will disapprove of, although in fact it works.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is available on Region 2 DVD in an excellent inexpensive edition. It’s also been released in Region 1 as part of Criterion’s overpriced Eclipse series, in a Gainsborough melodrama boxed set that includes The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady (both truly wonderful melodramas as well).

Madonna of the Seven Moons is bizarre and over-the-top and outrageously excessive and it’s a delight from start to finish. This movie is pure sinful indulgence. Highly recommended.

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