Contemporary filmmakers such as Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodóvar have produced some of their most celebrated works by reexamining the elements of an historically discredited film genre that has witnessed a passionate revival over the past twenty years of film scholarship. More than simply credible, melodrama serves as a powerful tool for the examination of interpersonal relationships both within the confines of family and the larger parameters of social communities. Most American audiences are familiar with the forays in the genre by Western directors, but filmmakers from around the world in countries such as China, India, and Greece have skillfully incorporated melodramatic elements into their work as well, as a way to examine prescient social concerns of their native lands. This series was curated in collaboration with Despina Kakoudaki, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University, and features a series of introductions by noted Harvard faculty.
March 5 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Introduced by Tom Conley, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures
Directed by D. W. Griffith
US 1919, 35mm, b/w, silent, 90 min.
With Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
In contrast to such vast and epic Griffith productions as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, this intimate melodrama was shot in a mere eighteen days in the studio on a modest budget. Still, at least one critic considered it his "most perfect, and perhaps his most engaging" film. Set in the Limehouse district of London, the story concerns the undying devotion of a Chinese merchant (Barthelmess) for a young working-class waif (Gish) who is abused by her brutish father, a local boxer. Although the typical Griffith stereotyping of race and class is not absent from this production, the exquisite performances and memorable portraiture lend the story a touching beauty and emotional resonance.
March 5 (Wednesday) 9 pm
George Cukor’s lavish adaptation of this story of doomed love in nineteenth-century Paris was the first sound version of the story by Alexander Dumas fils. In what is arguably Garbo’s finest performance and unquestionably one of her most popular, she provides a restrained turn as an ailing courtesan that meshes beautifully with the lavish and luxurious atmosphere of this golden-age MGM production. Marguerite (Garbo) falls in love with the promising young Armand (Taylor), but the young man’s father puts an end to their engagement in order to protect his son’s future. The tragic finale is a classic example of the power and magnetism of The Face.
March 11 (Tuesday) 7 pm
Introduced by Eric Rentschler, Professor of German
Directed by Douglas Sirk
US 1955, 35mm, color, 89 min.
With Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead
With her husband dead and her children off at college, it seems that Cary Scott (Wyman) will resign herself to the quiet, dignified life of the lonely New England widow—that is, until she encounters the virile young workman who tends her landscaping (Hudson). Scandal ensues. As much as the plot line is bound by the conventions of 1950s Hollywood "women’s pictures," under Sirk’s direction the film delivers an unusually perceptive critique of small-town social prejudice and the power it wields over the lives of individuals. As testament to the film’s enduring appeal, All That Heaven Allows has inspired two highly acclaimed adaptations, R. W. Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1973) and, more recently, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002).
March 11 (Tuesday) 9 pm
Directed by Douglas Sirk
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 106 min.
With Linda Darnell, George Sanders, Anna Lee
Based on Chekhov’s novella The Shooting Party, Summer Storm is the first major Hollywood production Sirk directed after his flight from Nazi Germany in the early 1940s. Set in a flashback to prerevolutionary Russia, the film recounts the downfall of three male characters—a judge, a nobleman, and a farmer—all of whom are corrupted by their affairs with the town femme fatale, a ravishingly beautiful peasant woman with a talent for seducing weak-willed men. Though this film was made a decade before the director’s signature melodramas, it explores many of the same Sirkian themes: guilt, weakness of the will, and the impotence of human action.
April 2 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Introduced by Brad Epps, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Spain 1999, 35mm, color, 101 min.
With Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz
Spanish with English subtitles
A master of the genre, Almodóvar creates a modernist melodrama with dashes of his trademark surrealism that draws not only on empathy for the wounded but on an admiration for the resilience of women. All About My Mother is a story of love and friendship that is born of significant loss. After losing her son in an unfortunate accident after attending a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a single mother seeks solace from her grief. Along the way she rediscovers pieces of her past as she reunites with the boy’s transvestite father, meets an old friend, and realizes new friendships with a nun who runs a shelter for battered prostitutes and with the stage actress her son so admired. Embracing issues of gender, role playing, and melodrama itself, Almodóvar creates a uniquely affecting work.
April 2 (Wednesday) 9 pm
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Spain 1985, 35mm, color, 106 min.
With Assumpta Serna, Antonio Banderas, Nacho Martinez
Spanish with English subtitles
Matador is a film about obsessions. A black comedy, the story focuses on the darker sides of human nature by following closely the morbid excesses of its three main characters. Almodóvar connects the lives of an injured matador, an aggressive lawyer, and a young religious zealot while playfully examining issues of repression and religion, death and obsession. Almodóvar’s psycho-sexual morality play strikes deep at the social soul of post-Franco Spain.
April 9 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Introduced by Eileen Chow, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Directed by Zheng Junli and Cai Chusheng
China 1947, 35mm, b/w, 190 min.
With Yang Bai, Tao Jin, Wu Yin
Mandarin with English subtitles
An idealistic schoolteacher leaves his wife and family behind in 1930s Shanghai to join the Red Cross in the fight against the Japanese invasion. After he is captured, he escapes to Chongqing, where he marries a high-society hostess and establishes a new bourgeois life for himself. Meanwhile, his family lives a life of poverty in a squatter’s camp in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Director Zheng and veteran filmmaker Cai (who focused mainly on the screenplay for fear of reprimand from the ruling Kuomintang Government) successfully intercut between the parallel narratives, which reflect the contradictory social conditions of prerevolutionary China and bring an epic scale to the life of the Chinese everyman. Considered the country’s equivalent of Gone with the Wind, this sweeping melodrama gave rise to a "romantic family epic" craze in 1940s China.
April 16 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by Mehboob Khan
India 1957, 35mm, color, 172 min.
With Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar
Hindi with English subtitles
The character of Radha, played by the Indian star Nargis, is at the center of this epic melodrama of family and deception in the newly independent nation-state on the brink of widespread social change. The peasant woman raises two sons amidst a series of crippling trials: one grows to be obedient while the other rebels against tradition and vows to avenge his family against Sukhilala, the malevolent moneylender who cheats them out of their crop and lusts after his mother. Ultimately, Radha must choose between her impassioned son and her community. Spectacularly filmed in Gevacolor and then transferred to Technicolor, Mother India is a cornerstone of classic Indian cinema, capturing the trials of a country in transition.
April 23 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Introduced by Despina Kakoudaki, Professor of Comparative Literature
Directed by Michael Cacoyannis
Greece 1955, 35mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Melina Mercouri, George Foundas
Greek with English subtitles
In her feature film debut Melina Mercouri plays the title character Stella, a restless young singer who rebels against the values of a patriarchal society. The sexually liberated, working-class heroine finds her values tested when she falls in love with a young football player and must choose between her free lifestyle and the man she loves. Cacoyannis (who later gained fame as the director of Zorba the Greek) received a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in 1956 for this passionate and energetic Greek melodrama.