Director: Pietro Germi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the 1960s, the flower of Italian cinema finally came into full bloom on the international scene. Of course, Italian movie makers had been producing stellar work since at least the 1940s. But it was in 1960 that Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita created a worldwide sensation. Suddenly, Italian cinema was all the rage, with Fellini leading the charge and Marcello Mastrioanni, the star of La Dolce Vita, the very symbol of disaffection that would come to characterize that tumultuous decade.
There were fainter lights in the Italian sky whose work also received recognition at the time but who have faded with the years. One of them was Pietro Germi. A skilled screenwriter and veteran director, Germi originally conceived of Divorce, Italian Style as a tragedy, but the story’s possibilities pushed him and screenwriter Ennio De Concini to the extreme edges of comedy. So admired was the screenplay when it made the rounds that Mastrioanni, then a big star, agreed to do a screen test to win the part of murder-minded Baron Ferdinando “Fefe” Cefalú from Germi’s original choice, Anthony Quinn. The film that resulted is one of the funniest and biting I have ever seen, with a visual humor Billy Wilder would have envied.
Agrigento, Sicily is the setting for this burlesque—an important point because divorce was illegal there at this time. Fefe has been married for more than a decade to Rosalia (Daniela Rocco), a foolish middlebrow who has gotten on his very last nerve. Fefe and Rosalia live with Fefe’s parents in a wing of the Cefalú manor house—all that is left of the noble family’s fortune. In the opposite wing lives Fefe’s uncle, whose lovely 16-year-old daughter Angela (Stefania Sandrelli) has captured Fefe’s heart.
At first, it’s hard to see what Fefe dislikes so much about Rosalia. She’s affectionate, often wants to make love, and seems to have a bit of an intellect, though more of the pop-psych variety. Yet, once we see her anger at Fefe, it all becomes clear. A shrieking goes off in Fefe’s head, and we are treated to his fantasies of murder. These visual flights of fancy go beyond anything that could be described, so closely woven are they with the comic rhythm of the film. But each is perfectly timed, short and sweet, and accompanied by sublime looks on Mastrioanni’s face as he imagines the deed.
One day, Fefe approaches Angela in a moonlit garden, and she admits she has nursed a passion for him, too. (No matter that they are first cousins; this is the nobility!) From that moment on, he is determined to kill his wife. But he must find a way to do it that will ensure he won’t spend the rest of his life in prison. Recently, a woman received 7 years for murdering her husband, whom she had caught in the arms of another woman. Fefe reasons that if he can maneuver his wife into having an affair and degrade his honor sufficiently to require an honor killing to restore the family name, he could get a light sentence.
Fefe’s search for a suitable paramour for his wife is hilarious. He buys Rosalia a new dress and parades her through town during the customary evening strolls once popular in Italy. He hopes the usual tableau of searching male eyes will find her irresistible, as he did when he was young and foolish. While many admire her form, this is not a very efficient way to find her a lover. He thinks an artist would entice her, and singles out a singer in the church choir. During church, he remarks helpfully to Rosalia that the man has quite a lovely voice. She agrees with a giggle and then says, “Poor man.” She whispers into his ear, and the camera pans up to the man singing in the choir box. After church, a voiceover by Fefe confirms that this man was obviously not a suitable choice. This is the deadpan way we learn of the man’s “infirmity” as a castrato.
One day, a painter comes to town to do some work in the church. It turns out that he and Rosalia were lovers before the war. Fefe instantly commissions him to restore some frescoes in the Cefalú home, monitoring the two former lovers with a tape recorder to see how their renewed romance may be progressing. Eventually, Rosalia does run off with her lover, and the town watches as Fefe becomes more and more degraded. When he takes his evening stroll now, he is subjected to catcalls and urgings to avenge his honor and that of his family. His sister’s long-time fiance, who, in a running joke, Fefe constantly catches in compromising situations with his sister, breaks the engagement because of Fefe’s humiliation. Finally, mafia Don Calogero (Ugo Torrente) agrees to help find out where Rosalia is hiding so that Fefe can do the “right” thing—just what Fefe had been waiting for.
This film is a visual feast in which the actors inhabit their caricatures with relish. For example, Sandrelli knows exactly the type of vixen called for, and she puts on the best madonna/whore I’ve seen in quite a while. When Fefe’s lust is still in its undeclared state, he peers through a high window in the bathroom to watch Angela lounge on her bed across the courtyard, shutters thrown open and cover off in all her calculated innocence.
Rocco has the wide face and too wide smile of the stereotypical shallow wife. Everything about her is both fetching and grating. She plays Rosalia as a woman who is unaware of anything but her own narrow concerns. When she runs off with her lover, she doesn’t even have the sense to worry about their safety. She is the perfect buffoon.
Of course, the ultimate buffoon is Fefe himself. Mastrioanni plays him as a degenerated aristocrat, with shellacked hair, a foppish cigarette holder, and a peculiar mouth tic that eventually becomes very grating. He’s certainly ingenious about how to get what he wants, but he is as unreflexive and doltish as any of the other characters.
The rules of Sicilian life are very rigid, leaving little space for individuality. Germi capitalized on this rigidity to lampoon both the code of honor and the roles into which bourgeois Italians eagerly throw themselves. Germi references Mastrioanni’s triumph in La Dolce Vita by showing the fictional opening of the Fellini film in Agrigento. With its expert direction, dead-on casting, and inventive cinematography Divorce, Italian Style stands alongside this Fellini milestone as one of the gems of Italian cinema.