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Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)
35mm. black and white, 110 mins
DirectorArthur Crabtree
ProducerR.J. Minney
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScreenplayRoland Pertwee
PhotographyJack Cox

Cast: Phyllis Calvert (Maddalena Labardi/Rosanna); Stewart Granger (Nino Barucci); Patricia Roc (Angela Labardi); Peter Glenville (Sandro Barucci); John Stuart (Giuseppe Labardi)

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Stricken with amnesia, the wife of an Italian wine merchant abandons her husband and daughter and ends up in Florence as the mistress of jewel thief Nino Barucci. Her daughter tries to find her, but is kidnapped by Nino's sinister brother.

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Probably the most bizarre of all the costume melodramas that Gainsborough produced in the mid-1940s, Madonna of the Seven Moons abandons the usual British historical setting in favour of a highly stylised Florence, nominally set in the 1930s but bearing little resemblance to Mussolini's Italy or indeed anyone else's: nominally 'Italian' characters talk and behave as though they've stepped out of a Noël Coward play set in the Home Counties.

As with many other Gainsborough melodramas, the film contrasts two women. Despite being mother and daughter (disbelief needs suspending here, as only three years separated the actresses in real life), Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) and Angela (Patricia Roc) come from completely different generations, and the straightlaced Maddalena is visibly shocked by Angela's clothes (or lack of them, at least by the standards of the time), her flirtatiousness, her overt sexuality and her independence, though seasoned Gainsborough watchers will find her very familiar.

Maddalena, though, represents a new departure. While previous Phyllis Calvert "good girls" in The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (d. Anthony Asquith, 1944) were slightly more ambiguous than that rather dismissive term would imply, Maddalena is vastly more complicated. The combination of a strict Catholic upbringing and implied rape (by a gypsy) as a teenager has left her with a personality split right down the middle, accompanied by regular bouts of amnesia whereby 'Maddalena' knows nothing about the gypsy 'Rosanna' and vice versa, apart from occasional disturbing triggers - a whistled tune, a cross, a religious procession, jewellery.

So while the film explores the same contrasting themes as its predecessors (good/bad, repressed/adventurous, religious/irreligious) the radical departure here is that the contrasts are contained within the same woman, and it's her inability to come to terms with them that gives the film much of its tension. In fact, despite being the male lead, Nino Barucci (Stewart Granger) has little to do except partner Giuseppe Labardi (John Stuart) as a foil to Maddalena/Rosanna.

Whereas Fanny by Gaslight was directed by Anthony Asquith, Madonna of the Seven Moons saw Arthur Crabtree making his directorial debut after nearly a decade as one of Gainsborough's leading cinematographers. Unsurprisingly, this has produced a film that's visually ravishing but dramatically shaky - it's occasionally hard to tell whether some of its effects are intentional. But it's a genuinely ambitious, risk-taking film that's a world apart from typical British cinema of the time.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The new Maddalena (1:12)
2. The seven moons! (4:00)
3. Nino and his gang (1:11)
4. The procession (4:28)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Caravan (1946)
Fanny By Gaslight (1944)
Love Story (1944)
Magic Bow, The (1946)
Man in Grey, The (1943)
They Were Sisters (1945)
Calvert, Phyllis (1915-2002)
Cox, Jack (1890-1960)
Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)
Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)
Roc, Patricia (1915-2003)
Gainsborough Melodrama