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Two lovers walk in silence along a riverbank.1 They are framed in a long shot, on a path bordered by green grasses. Behind them are misty fields and distant trees. But in the foreground is a jumble of scattered rubbish: plastic bags, a discarded suitcase, a purple armchair, an abandoned washing machine. As they stop to look out at the river, the camera slowly pans left, revealing a wide expanse of white foam on the surface of the water. The young woman, Carmela, asks, “Do they wash clothes here? It looks like soapy water.” The man, Nullo, replies frowning, “It wasn’t like this before [..] The water was clean. We used to come here to swim. Now it’s full of poison. Industrial waste. It stinks. Worse than the air in the factory.” As he talks, the image cuts to a closeup of white foam piling up near the bank, by the underside of a wrecked car. Moments later, Carmela notices the dead bodies of four small birds among the litter strewn on the bank, picked out by the camera in a slowly tracking closeup (See Figure 1.) She gathers them up and digs a small grave with her hands, helped by Nullo. Both Carmela and Nullo have left work at the factory early, she after fainting at her post near the ovens, he having been suspended for losing his temper in an argument with the factory doctor and a secretary.2 Carmela had asked her lover: “Bring me somewhere nice, with sunshine”, but they had come to a site of nature ruined and despoiled.

Figure 1: Carmela gathers the dead birds

This sequence takes place halfway through Delitto d’amore / Crime of Love (1974), the 26th of 37 features directed by Luigi Comencini. After the second world war, Comincini wrote film reviews for the socialist newspaper Avanti, and made children’s films, documentaries, melodramas and comedies, across a lengthy career. He is probably best known in Italy as the director of a television mini-series adaptation of Pinocchio in 1972.3 Comincini wrote the screenplay for Delitto d’amore based on a story by Ugo Pirro, who had cowritten (with director Elio Petri) An Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and The Working Class Go To Heaven (1971).4  Unlike those two films, Delitto d’amore has been almost entirely ignored by Anglophone scholarship.5 In a rare and brief commentary in English, Lorenzo Marmo complains: “The film offers a description of the polluted landscape of the Milanese periphery as unforgettable as it is insufferably mawkish (we even witness the burial of dead birds on the plastic-invaded riverbank)”.6 Marmo seems unable to tolerate the coexistence of narrative content focused on contemporary problems (industrial pollution, workers’ health problems) with a melodramatic tone and a visual style that is unrealistic at times. However, the film shifts across different registers, from social realist stylings to moments of ‘excessive’ artifice; and in terms of content it both trades in clichés and subverts them. Thus the riverbank scene serves a double duty, first as a bitter parody of the trope of a couple’s pastoral idyll.7 Here, nature is far from a verdant, blossoming analogue of the lovers’ romantic awakening. Instead it has been reduced to a rubbish tip contaminated by industrial effluent and fly-tipping. Might this inhospitable environment ultimately threaten their love? Secondly, when considered in retrospect, Carmela’s gesture of collecting and burying the bird corpses not only manifests her compassion, it also prefigures her own death. The fact that this parallel is rendered in part via melodramatic overstatement does not invalidate the film’s critique of the depredations enforced by capitalism. 

Two of Comincini’s earlier films, Pane, Amore e Fantasia / Bread, Love and Dreams (1953) and its 1954 sequel Pane, Amore e Gelosia / Frisky, have been grouped in the critically devalued category of ‘pink realism’, of which Karl Schoonover has written:

Beginning in the early 1950s and before the rise of neorealism’s second generation, a group of films, soon to be labeled “pink neorealism” (neorealismo rosa) , adopted the themes and outward look of the postwar cinema, while at the same time replacing desperate narratives of political strife, economic alienation, and moral tragedy with stories of romance, unwavering optimism, and happy endings. Despite their enormous box office success, these later films were savaged by critics for their formulaic appropriations of neorealism as simply a motif. Critics found inappropriate their watered-down and rose-tinted—hence pink—perspective on the hardships of daily life during the postwar reconstruction.8

Delitto d’amore cannot be considered a belated instance of pink realism, however. Its synthesis of social realism and a ‘story of romance’ refuses the optimism and happy endings that Schoonover ascribes to this grouping. Moreover, the particular alloy of contrasting elements that it presents does not deploy the formulae of neorealism as an opportune but largely meaningless framework. Instead, Delitto d’amore intertwines melodrama, romance and social realism to generate impacts that are both emotional and political.  

Melodrama and Douglas Sirk

The case of Delitto d’amore, its neglect and Marmo’s disdain for it, invites a reconsideration of the much-debated politics and aesthetics of screen melodrama. Marmo is guilty of perpetuating one of several false binaries that have structured melodrama’s critical reception across the decades. In order to contextualise his disparaging commentary, it is worth revisiting how the canonisation of Douglas Sirk in the 1970s drove a revaluation of the much-maligned ‘women’s’ genre in which he often worked, and how this very rehabilitation (re)produced problematic distinctions, especially along gender and class lines.9 

In two short studies of Sirk’s 1950s melodramas that proved highly influential in later scholarly discussions, Paul Willemen located a Brechtian aesthetic in films such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959).10 Writing in 1971, Willemen characterised these films as offering an “intensification”, rather than an outright rejection, of genre rules and conventions, which enabled him to place them under the rubric of Comolli and Narboni’s category E: “‘films which seem at first sight to belong firmly within the [dominant] ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so in an ambiguous manner.’”11 In approaching subject matter that “differs in no way from run-of-the-mill products”, Sirk effects “a distance between the film and its narrative pretext” through a number of techniques, according to Willemen.12 These include: “the deliberate use of symbols as emotional stimuli [..] setting the action in an emotional echo-chamber reminiscent of a stage [..] the use of choreography as a direct expression of character [..] [and] the use of baroque colour-schemes”.13 However, Willemen argues that such a battery of devices does not destroy the emotional involvement of audiences:

In general in his melodramas, Sirk does not employ techniques to distanciate his audience. On the contrary, he mercilessly implicates the audience in the action. (Ample proof of this can be found in the audience’s near hysterical reactions to his films involving abundant tears and / or self-protective laughter.)14 

Nevertheless, Willemen’s Brechtian reading of Sirk evinces a suspicion of emotional investment and response that is prevalent throughout this critical tradition.

Almost concurrently with Willemen, John Halliday published Sirk on Sirk in 1972, a series of interviews with the director, which Barbara Klinger has since called “probably the driving force behind Sirk’s more complete authorization” in the early 1970s.15 

His European sensibilities and conversancy with theories of representation, such as those of Erwin Panofsky and Bertolt Brecht, helped establish [Sirk] as a serious artist and social critic. [..] Sirk’s remarks on style make it clear that ‘things’ – objects in the mise-en-scène, including mirrors – are no longer ciphers, vivid stylistic flourishes without certain significance; they embody social critique or a self-reflexive awareness of the conditions of representation.16

As a result of the political rehabilitation of Sirk by Willemen, Halliday, and others such as Thomas Elsaesser and Laura Mulvey, the previously devalued genre of melodrama was also reconsidered by scholars.17 In Christine Gledhill’s phrase: “Through discovery of Sirk, a genre came into view.” She elaborates: 

Stylistic excess had no longer to be defended or justified as the correlative of a coherent vision. It became a positive value, passing from an authorial to a generic trademark and under this rubric the films of Minnelli, Ray, Ophuls, Cukor and Kazan came to stand alongside Sirk to mark the parameters of a new critical field.18 

However, as Gledhill then demonstrates, a critical disdain for working-class and lower-middle class audiences is embedded in the terms through which melodrama became critically validated: 

Irony and parody operate between two secure points: the position which we who perceive the irony occupy and that which, held at a distance, is critiqued. The ‘radical readings’ of the 70s belonged to the critics, made at the expense of the naïve involvement of American ‘popular’ audiences in the 1950s.19

Moreover, this distinction is also a gendered one: 

The two audiences for Sirkian irony can be further specified: one which is implicated, identifies and weeps, and one which, seeing through such involvement, distances itself. The fact that, across all classes, the first is likely to be female and the other male was not remarked on.20

An important riposte to this devaluation of women’s concerns is Laura Mulvey’s “Notes on Sirk and Melodrama”, published in 1977. In an opening critique of Willemen, Mulvey writes: “Ideological contradiction is the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes.” She then turns to the pleasures that the genre offers to female audiences in particular: 

there is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stamping ground, the family. [..] the melodramas of Douglas Sirk [..] probing pent-up emotion, bitterness and disillusion well known to women, act as a corrective [to masculinist genres such as the Western and gangster film].21 

But Willemen’s logic is also problematic in a third way that Gledhill does not mention. The (often gendered) opposition of an emotionally invested, identifying viewer with a detached, critically aware one is ultimately a false binary. Through an analysis of the object of Marmo’s disapproval, Delitto d’amore, I will argue that both perspectives can be taken up by the same viewer, in a repeated oscillation moving between the two. In this case, the invitation of emotional response can be understood not simply as a means of obfuscation, but as a call to political awareness; and political investment can be seen to drive emotional engagement, in a mutually supportive process.


Stylistically, the film oscillates between a social realist aesthetic and a Sirkian foregrounding of artifice, in particular through its use of colour. Carmela first declares her love to Nullo after he has skipped work to take the bus with her back to her family’s rooms, an hour and half away from the factory. The scene is shot in the muted colours and grey fog of a Milanese early spring. (See Figure 2.) After Carmela has left him to go inside, Nullo walks along the side wall of the decrepit building, and turns into the open back yard. Traces of a dull pink paint stand out from the crumbling grey-brown of the wall. A plaintive female singer is heard on the soundtrack (this mournful song is also heard in the final scene of the film.) The camera then slowly tracks back past drying washing, an outside sink, and a single pollarded tree to reveal the old two-storey block, the top storey of which has been painted in blocks of colour to demarcate separate families’ living spaces: yellow, pink, blue and green (See Figure 3). Several small children are playing in the litter and puddles of the yard, next to a row of outhouses. The mobile camera and the singer’s lament foreground the presence of a narrational agency here, but the sequence synthesises these interventions with elements of a social realist aesthetic: the scene is evidently shot on location with available light, in the poverty of Milan’s outskirts. Even the startling use of colour is diegetic, deployed as a resource in an attempt by the impoverished occupants to decorate and distinguish their parts of the dilapidated building. Indeed, in Delitto d’amore colour tends to be diegetically motivated and located in the largely realist mise-en-scène, rather than delivered through lighting and filters. (Another example is the company logo of a bright red letter C visible at the front of the factory. See Figure 4.)

Figure 2: Carmela and Nullo in the fog

Figure 3: Nullo outside Carmela’s home

Figure 4: Company logo on the factory building

But colour nevertheless serves symbolic purposes, in a more or less Sirkian fashion of intensification. For instance, Nullo is associated with the deep red of his motorbike and the banners of the Italian Communist Party. Carmela, for her part, is associated with several shades of pink. Not only is this the colour in which her family’s share of the house has been painted (see Figure 5), pink also appears on the cardigan she often wears. Even her eldest brother, Pasquale, who hits her for staying out late, and later fights with Nullo, wears a jacket of pale pink on Sundays. There are also some uses of lighting to create blocks of colour, especially purple, in the factory sequences, that are clearly not realistic. (See Figures 6, 7, and 8.)

Figure 5: Carmela at the widow

Figure 6: lighting and blocks of colour in the factory scenes

Figure 7: lighting and blocks of colour in the factory scenes

Figure 8: lighting and blocks of colour in the factory scenes

Such moments of ostensive colour use alternate with a more social realist aesthetic, for instance, when Nullo points out his apartment block to Carmela and the camera pans to take in the neighbouring blocks, pylons, cranes, and building sites, or when the camera shoots through the car window as Nullo takes the ailing Carmela from her family’s room to his own home, in order to marry her. (See Figures 9, 10 and 11.) 

Figure 9: Apartment blocks

Figure 10: Apartment blocks

Figure 11: View from the car that takes Carmela to Nullo’s home


The most celebrated inheritor of Sirk’s critical mantle is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose work covers a wide terrain but whose best-known film, Ali, Fear Eats the Soul (1974) transposes the socially transgressive cross-generation romance of All That Heaven Allows to a cross-race and cross-generation relationship in contemporary Munich.22 In addition to his extensive borrowing of both content and formal elements in Ali and other films, Fassbinder’s explicit admiration of Sirk in writings and interviews also helped consolidate the older director’s political reputation among leftist critics and audiences of the time.23 As Klinger has argued: 

His films seemed to simulate Sirk by using melodrama as a platform for social criticism. Stylistically, Fassbinder employed a baroque mise-en-scène complete with the Sirk trademarks of mirrors and doorways as distancing devices. While the content of the New German director’s work was played out in a more overtly incendiary fashion, the parallels nonetheless reinforced the sense that Sirk’s films had been a significant influence on a significant cinema.24 

Ali, Fear Eats the Soul was released the same year as Delitto d’amore, and it is instructive to compare both films’ figurations of the social disapproval confronting their protagonists. Gastarbeiter Ali has left Morocco in search of employment and works in a small garage. He and elderly cleaning woman Emi are both working class; their differences are ethnic, cultural and generational. Like Ali, Carmela is an economic migrant, but the key axis of the social difference confronting her and Nullo is that of regional origin. She and her family have moved from Sicily to the outskirts of Milan in order to find work.25 At times, the abuse they encounter is explicitly racist although they are white, such as when Carmela’s brother Pasquale is called a “Moroccan” by locals. Nullo works in the same factory as Carmela, but is Milanese born and bred. Polarised social and cultural norms and expectations attend these geographical differences, and each group stereotypes the other. Carmela and Nullo seek advice from their workmates about how to successfully date, respectively, a man from the north, and a woman from the south. However, their incipient relationship is hampered by mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. Both families live in crowded domestic spaces, but Carmela and her relations are Catholics, living in a single large room full of beds, chairs and other cheap, old-fashioned furniture, while Nullo’s family are atheists and anarcho-communists, whose more modern apartment has several rooms and is notable for white tiled walls throughout. She complains, “I know you Milanese. You’d do anything for money”, while he tells her “Don’t worry, we have poor people too” and repeatedly exclaims in exasperation at her family’s ‘backward’ ways. For example: “It’s not possible you risk being killed by your brother and mother for going out. It’s almost the year two thousand.” Ultimately, they form both a romantic couple and a symbolic alliance across regional differences that is based not just on love but also on their shared class position as workers. Yet this union, of the couple and their families, is only realised far too late, when Carmela is already dying from a non-specified health condition caused by her toxic work environment. 

In an argument notably free of the distinctions embedded in Willemen’s Brecthian reading of Sirk, Linda Williams contends that: 

A melodrama does not have to contain multiple scenes of pathetic death to function melodramatically. What counts is the feeling of loss suffused throughout the form. Audiences may weep or not weep, but the sense of loss that implicates readers or audiences is central.26 

Nullo’s lament for the pristine river of his childhood years is one of several expressions of loss in Delitto d’amore. For her part, Carmela is confronted by a doubled loss of Sicily. Firstly, she references the devastating Belice earthquake of 1968, in which hundreds of people died. When Nullo asks her about where she comes from, she replies: “All white. There’s the sea. It’s always sunny. It’s beautiful. But before the earthquake”. Secondly, she has had to leave home and travel north in search of employment. When Nullo says, sentimentally, “If one’s truly happy then any place is beautiful,” she responds soberly: “Perhaps content, but never happy because we’re poor people.”27 Carmela’s statement here punctures the romantic cliché of love transcending material surroundings, and in doing so anticipates the narrative trajectory of the film. The couple’s love will not be enough to insulate them from the toxicity of factory work. Delitto d’amore thus presents a litany of losses, of past times and places at those moments, even before Carmela’s death. 

The staging of Carmela’s final actions, shortly after her bed-bound marriage to Nullo, begins with a blurred shot of the couple through glass that is running with rain. The camera slowly zooms in and a focus pull shifts from the wet window pane to Carmela lying on her back. But a degree of blurring persists in the image, as an analogue of the tearful ‘misty-eyed’ response that may be elicited from audiences at this point. Carmela asks Nullo to make a telephone call to her home town. Her last words, to the ‘Town Guard’, are: “Is it sunny there? Is it hot?” (See Figures 12 and 13) 

In his analysis of popular novels ‘designed to make people cry’,28 Franco Moretti calls attention to the importance of ‘“the too late”, [which] could simply be called time’:

This is what the protagonist’s death is for: to show that time is irreversible. And this irreversibility is perceived that much more clearly if there are no doubts about the different direction one would like to impose on the course of events.
This is what makes one cry. Tears are always the product of powerlessness. They presuppose two mutually opposed facts: that it is clear how the present state of things should be changed – and that this change is impossible.29

Moretti’s argument facilitates an understanding of not only the emotional impact of Carmen’s death as the key melodramatic ‘too late’ moment in Delitto d’amore, but also the significance of Nullo’s reaction, which moves beyond his initial tears to challenge his own powerlessness.

Figure 12: Last images of Carmela. Nullo helps her call her home town in Sicily

Figure 13: Last images of Carmela. Nullo helps her call her home town in Sicily

The death of Carmela is a step beyond Ron’s incapacitation after a fall in All That Heaven Allows and Ali’s hospitalisation at the close of Ali, Fear Eats the Soul. The latter film offers an indictment of the Gastarbeiter system when the doctor tells Emi: “He has a perforated stomach ulcer. It happens a lot with foreign workers. It’s the stress. [..] he’ll recover, but he’ll be back here again in six months.” Nullo’s response to the loss of Carmen, repeated in the sequence that bookends the film, differs significantly from that of Emi, and of Cary in All That Heaven Allows. Each of these isolated women, it is implied, will support their partner’s slow convalescence. By contrast, Nullo’s individual action is to avenge Carmela by shooting the factory boss. This moment of personal violence extends the narrative beyond the irreversible moment of climactic loss, and is also crucially situated within a collective action, that of the workforce going on strike in protest at Carmela’s death. This important contextualisation reiterates the social and material location of the romantic couple within an industrial labourforce. 

The scene of Nullo shooting the factory boss opens the film, thus rendering the main body of Delitto d’amore as a flashback. His action is as ‘excessive’ and melodramatic as Carmela’s burial of the dead birds on the riverbank. But it differs in two salient ways. The attack, while an individual response, is framed within a collective one. And the sequence deploys a social realist visual register that is notably different from the foregrounded artifice evident in much of the film. The film’s first image is a longshot of striking workers assembled outside the factory gates. A man stands on a table, addressing the crowd through a megaphone. Several red banners are visible against a wall and a large white banner with the word ‘SCIOPERO’ (STRIKE) has been hung above the gates. Instead of diegetic sounds, a deep, gloomy melody is played on a cello. The image cuts to a mid-shot of Nullo, tracking right to left as he walks steadily through the throng, past a parked police car, the red banners, and another slogan ‘Unamoci della lotta’ (‘Join the fight’). As he walks towards the gates, several strikers stand back to let him pass, and the camera briefly holds an image of the factory boss in camel overcoat and scarf, standing to the side of his white Mercedes and black-clad chauffeur. A medium closeup shows Nullo looking offscreen, towards the boss. Nullo is wearing a pale grey jacket, blue shirt and navy tie which, it is later revealed, are the same clothes he wore for his hasty wedding to Carmela. There is a sudden cut to a closeup of a gun in Nullo’s hand. He fires, the soundtrack registers the shot, the image freezes on the flash, and the title Delitto d’amore is superimposed in yellow capitals. At this shock moment, social realist stylings are replaced in a shift to the high-impact forms of closeup, freeze frame, and sonic assault. (See Figures 14 and 15.) 

The doubling of Nullo’s revenge, in bookending the film, generates a mechanism of suspense, and a slowly emerging sense of dread. The longer the film goes on, the more audiences may ask: Why did Nullo do that? What circumstances drove him to it? Does it relate to Carmela at all? If, as Noel Carroll has suggested, in narrational terms suspense is generated when an event is presented to an observer as highly probable but s/he nevertheless hopes for a less likely outcome, Carmela’s deteriorating health, along with Nullo’s violent act, point towards a grim ending for her.30 Viewers’ hopes for a different outcome dwindle over time, and time is something that cannot be resisted. The implacable, inescapable logic of suspense operates durationally, and in this instance it gradually intensifies through much of the film, particularly from the moment when Carmela faints at work. 

Steve Neale has explored “the degree to which narration in melodrama involves the production of discrepancies between the knowledge and point of view of the spectator and the knowledge and points of view of the characters, such that the spectator often knows more.”31 But this hierarchy of knowledge is produced only rarely in Delitto d’amore. An example is when Carmela faints unbeknown to Nullo, but even then he learns of this almost immediately when her colleagues pass him, carrying her to the sick bay. Focalization is more often on Nullo than Carmela, who is never shown at home unless he is visiting her. Her appearance at work with a bruised face is, she tells Nullo, the result of an assault by her brother Pasquale, but the action is never shown. Her trip to the hospital caused by her worsening health is an even more significant and potentially poignant event that could have been used to give audiences significant knowledge unavailable to Nullo. Instead, it is entirely elided from the plot, and, like Nullo, audiences only learn about it from Pasquale later on, when Carmela is close to death. Nevertheless, the non-linear structure of emplotment, which places Nullo’s revenge attack on the factory boss in the first scene, initiates a state of a curiosity among audiences. This suspicion, or fear, (what has provoked him? is this the ‘crime of love’ referred to in the film’s title?)32 is based on an imperfect knowledge that is gradually clarified over the duration of the film. Ultimately, audiences come to know more than Nullo because they have already seen his final, extreme action, one that he does not yet know he will undertake.

Figure 14: Striking workers at the factory gates

Figure 15: Freeze frame as Nullo fires the handgun

Melodrama goes to work

There is a risk that the critical rehabilitation of screen melodrama in film theory of the early 1970s reinscribes a reactionary politics within the genre, in the very act of rescuing it as a progressive mode. This logic implies that any melodrama devoid of a Brechtian / Sirkian aesthetic remains inherently conservative. If it is only stylistic excess that elevates a film by Sirk or Minnelli above Willemen’s “run-of-the-mill products”, then less celebrated instances of the genre may remain irredeemable. If their reactionary politics is spelled out at all in scholarship, it is seen to reside in a bourgeois or aspirational perspective and mise-en-scène, a moralising tone and a simplistic, overly schematic opposition between vice and virtue. However, as Jane Gaines has argued, melodrama, in both theatrical and filmic manifestations, may have another, differently progressive, connection to politics.33  This linkage, for Gaines, is most evident in the similarities between Marx’s staging of the clash between capital and labour in the three volumes of Capital, and the work of the revolutionary filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, in particular Strike (1925), since they both deploy elements of a melodramatic structure.34 Importantly, for Gaines, Strike hastens to move past the suicide by hanging of a worker wrongly accused of theft to a celebration of the factory-wide strike that it precipitates, thus “shifting from the powerlessness of the dangling worker to the power of collective protest”.35 In situating Nullo’s violent response to the death of Carmela within a similar action by their fellow workers, Delitto d’amore tries to shift from victimhood to an assertion of solidarity and collective power. But Carmela’s illness and death engages viewers emotionally and (for this viewer at least) generates a tearful response that exceeds the impact of the brief suicide scene in Strike

Nevertheless, in its staging of the strike, Delitto d’amore adumbrates a political trajectory that is never available to the isolated figures of Cary (in All That Heaven Allows) and Emi (in Ali, Fear Eats the Soul).36 Moreover, it also echoes Eisenstein’s refusal of “the recognition of wrongs [by those in power] or the negotiation of positions that would give an impression that class injustice can be ameliorated.”37 Nullo’s previous angry disparagement of the face masks introduced for workers at the ovens following Carmela’s hospitalisation is a similar refusal of institutional power’s attempts to inoculate itself against protest via gestures of reconciliation. Instead, the narrative ends (twice) on an unequivocal message of resistance. In the first version of the bookend sequence, the one that opens the film, the final image is the freeze frame of Nullo shooting the boss. The second version, the one that closes the film, ends on another uncompromising image of dissent, a strikers’ banner bearing the slogan in red capitals ‘Basta Con Gli Omocidi Bianchi’, meaning ‘No More Deaths at Work’. Nullo’s reaction to Carmela’s death is a pointedly individual one: the (attempted) killing that bookends the plot. But it is framed by the collective workers’ response. The strikers let him through; he, like Carmela, is one of them. And his urgent act of violence is presented as a valid reply to the ‘slow violence’ of capitalism that has killed Carmela, even it is also a rather gender-stereotyped one of avenging the dead woman.38 As the image captures the strikers’ banner, a shot rings out and the final credits roll. By shooting the factory boss, Nullo may have added another instance of a death at work, but one that is justified by the symbiotic political and emotional logics of the film. 

Delitto d’amore’s interrogation of imbrications between the obstruction and ultimate formation of the heterosexual couple, and the capital / labour dialectic can be seen to move beyond the powerlessness of Carmela as victim to arrive at a celebration of a provisional alliance across regional and cultural differences (Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Marxists). Marmo’s suggestion that the film’s “melodramatic conclusion once again proposes death as the only solution to a seemingly unavailable integration [of workers from various backgrounds] in modernity” misunderstands its staging of collective class resistance.39 Thematically, the film endorses the overcoming of differences between the lovers’ two families as they finally gather together for the marriage, then the bride’s death, in Nullo’s apartment, and also in the wider strike action. Delitto d’amore also instantiates in itself another bringing together, of polarized styles and themes. In the process, the film holds in suspension two competing systems of judgement, one moralizing, the other political, just as it attempts to keep a balance between an ostensive, ‘excessive’ style and a social realist urge. By putting these mutual tensions into temporary abeyance, it approaches a syncretism in both thematic and aesthetic terms, such that a melodramatic revenge killing by a grieving lover and a collective protest that unites workers despite their differences appear as coinciding and equally valid actions. Delitto d’amore’s ultimate significance, then, lies in asking its audiences to both feel and think, and in the challenge this constitutes to an assumed division of labour between emotion and politics.


  1. Thanks to Jenny Needham for getting me thinking about melodrama again.
  2. It remains unclear what the factory makes, although it involves multiple short pieces of metal tubing and the application of paint.
  3. See Jean A. Gili, Luigi Comencini (Rome: Gremese Editore, 2005).
  4. On the two earlier films, see for instance Milicent Marcus, “Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion: power as pathology”, in Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton University Press, 1987); Evan Calder Williams “The Fog of class war: Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven, four decades on”, Film Quarterly 66:4 (2013), pp. 50-59. Williams notes in a key strand of Italian “polpop” (politico-popular) cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s the trope of working “men at the ends of their ropes”. Williams, pp. 52-53. With its stress on a working-class heterosexual couple, Delitto d’amore breaks from this androcentric tendency, while remaining ‘polpop’ in other ways, as discussed below.
  5. It also merits only the briefest mention in Gian Piero Brunetta’s La Storia del Cinema Italiano (Volume 4, 1993), pp. 375-6. Thanks to Elisabetta Fabrizi for this information.
  6. Lorenzo Marmo, “Spaces and bodies of industrial labor in Italian cinema, 1945-1975”, in Carlo Baghetti, Jim Carter and Lorenzo Marmo, (eds.), Italian Industrial Literature and Film (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2021), p.56.
  7. In Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), the gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) has a much more straightforwardly (and stereotypically) positive association with nature, symbolised when he gathers a spray of golden rain tree for widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman).
  8. Karl Schoonover, Brutal Vision: the Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 188.
  9. Louis Bayman has noted the relative neglect of Italy in studies of the melodramatic mode: “Surprisingly little consideration of the fundamentals of the form refers to any great degree to Italy.” This is particularly surprising, he suggests, given that “the heritage of public spectacle and musical drama – of Venetian carnival, Monteverdian opera or bel canto, of the theatrical aspects of Vatican Catholicism, court culture and mass political movements (..) could be placed as points of origin to a number of forms of melodrama.” Bayman, “The seriousness of melodrama”, in Louis Bayman and Sergio Rigoletto (eds.), Popular Italian Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 83.
  10. Willemen does not explicitly cite Brecht until the second of the two pieces, “Towards an Analysis of the Sirkian System”, Screen 13:4 (1972), pp. 128-134.
  11. Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni, “Cinema /Ideology / Criticism”, Cahiers du Cinema 216, translated and reprinted in Screen, 21:1 (1971), pp. 27-38, cited in Willemen, “Distanciation and Douglas Sirk”, Screen 12:2 (1971), p. 67.
  12. Willemen, p. 65.
  13. Willemen, p. 65. The first of these concepts, which Willemen also calls “cliche-images” (sic) and what he terms the “total unequivocalness” of such symbols (“eg a deer and a Christmas tree are symbols for nature; a mink coat stands for success”), is reworked in Laura Mulvey’s much later return to Sirk, in Death 24x a Second. Here, Mulvey writes of the director’s use of ‘object images’ at the conclusion of key scenes, such as Sarah Jane’s black doll that she discards in Imitation of Life. “As the camera holds the shot, it allows a few extra seconds for the spectator to interpret the meaning invested in it. The doll mutates into a poignant signifier of Sarah Jane’s feelings, for her desire to leave blackness behind her”. Thus “Sirk uses clichés to create readable images with emotional impact that will address the audience directly.” Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, (London: Reaktion Books, 2006) p. 148.
  14. Willemen, p. 65. See also Willemen, “Towards an analysis of the Sirkian system”, p. 129.
  15. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (New York: Viking Press, 1972). Barbara Klinger, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 8, 7. Klinger also notes the significance of Cahiérs du Cinema’s publication of an interview with Sirk, along with further material, in April 1967. See Klinger, pp. 7-8.
  16. Klinger, pp. 8, 9. Brecht was also an influence on Comincini’s peer Elio Petri. See Marcus, p. 266. Like Comencini, Petri too reworked genre conventions (such as the thriller) in order to deliver a critique of the status quo. See Marcus, pp. 265-270.
  17. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama” Monogram 4 (1972), pp.2-15. See a brief discussion of Mulvey below.
  18. Christine Gledhill, “The Melodramatic field: an investigation” in Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1987), p. 7.
  19. Gledhill, “The Melodramatic field: an investigation,” p. 11.
  20. Gledhill, p. 12.
  21. Laura Mulvey, “Notes on Sirk and melodrama”, Movie 25 (1977-78), p. 53.
  22. Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky notes that the generation gap between middle class widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and younger gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) in All That Heaven Allows obscure their similarities in class terms. “Cary’s Stoningham community misrecognizes the union between Cary and Ron as one that transgresses class barriers and breaches decorum. Ron may be working as a gardener, but he is not a wage laborer; he is not selling his labour power for an hourly fee; he is a member of the bourgeoisie.” Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, “The Price of heaven: remaking politics in All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Far from Heaven,” Cinema Journal 47:3 (2008), pp. (90-121) 95.
  23. See Klinger, Melodrama and Meaning, p. 90. Klinger refers here in particular to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Fassbinder on Sirk” trans. Thomas Elsaesser, Film Comment, 11:6 (1975), pp. 22-24.
  24. Klinger, p. 90. On Fassbinder’s borrowings from Sirk, see also Laura Cottingham, Ali, Fear Eats the Soul (London: British Film Institute, 2005), pp. 29-32; Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (London: British Film Institute, 1989); Skvirsky, “The Price of heaven”, pp. 98-106.
  25. “Between 1951 and 1971, Italy underwent a historically unprecedented internal migration of 9.1 million persons, overwhelmingly from rural zones in the south toward factories in the northern industrial triangle (Turin, Genoa, and Milan).” Williams, “The Fog of class war”, p. 53.
  26. Linda Williams, “Melodrama revisited,” in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. Nick Browne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.18, cited in Skvirsky, p. 117n.
  27. The relative poverty of Sicily compared to Northern Italy has been noted countless times by commentators. A recent example is Marco Benoit Carbone, who also locates in Sicily and neighbouring Calabria on the mainland attempts to reverse this entrenched regional stigma through “both a declaration of Mediterranean exceptionality and a romantic overperformance of the idea of having represented the earliest Europe” as part of ancient Greece. “‘Being the Greeks’ has meant for some in the South a way to secure one’s place both within Italy and the ‘West’ and in contrast with those supra-local foci of subordinating power.” Carbone, Geographies of Myth and Places of Identity: the Strait of Scylla and Charybdis in the Modern Imagination (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), p. 5.
  28. Franco Moretti, Signs Take for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller, (London: Verso, 1983), p. 156.
  29. Moretti, p. 162, emphasis in original.
  30. Noel Carroll, (1984) “Towards a theory of film suspense”, Persistence of Vision, vol. 1, pp. 65–89, cited in David Bordwell, (1985) Narration in the Fiction Film (Routledge, London), p.46.
  31. Steve Neale, “Melodrama and tears” Screen 27:6 (1986), 6-23, p.7, emphasis in original.
  32. Thanks to Charlotte Adcock for this point.
  33. “Theatrical melodrama has historically been the preferred form of revolutionary periods precisely for its capacity to dichotomize swiftly, to identify targets, to encapsulate conflict, and to instil the kind of pride that can swell the ranks of malcontents. Revolutionary melodrama can be depended upon to narrate intolerable historical conditions in such a way that audiences wish to see wrongs ‘righted,’ are even moved to act upon their reaffirmed convictions, to act against tyranny and for ‘the people’.” Jane Gaines, ‘The Melos in Marxist theory”, in David E. James and Rick Berg (eds.), The Hidden Foundation: Cinema and the Question of Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 59-60.
  34. Gaines, ‘The Melos in Marxist theory’, especially pp. 59-61.
  35. Gaines, p. 66.
  36. With this political agenda the film also moves well beyond the intermittent social relevance that Bayman locates in his analysis of 1950s cinema: “Italian cinema used melodrama to treat subjects which are themselves taken seriously in wider society: the family, religious belief and artistic construction”. Bayman, “Melodrama as seriousness”, p. 94.
  37. Gaines, especially p. 67. Delitto d’amore also shares with Strike a characterisation verging on caricature of the greedy factory boss and his assistants, notably a sneering engineer and a lecherous doctor in Comencini’s film.
  38. See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  39. Marmo, “Spaces and bodies of industrial labor in Italian cinema, 1945-1975”, p. 56.

About The Author

Thomas Austin is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. He is the editor of The Films of Steve McQueen (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming October 2023).

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