The Film: Divorce Italian Style (1961)
The Principles: Pietro Germi (Director). Marcello Mastroianni. Daniela Rocca. Stefania Sandrelli. Leopoldo Trieste.
The Premise: Meet 37-year-old Sicilian Baron Ferdinando Cefalu (Mastroianni). He has a wife, Rosalia (Rocca), a rather handsome woman who could best be described as cloying. Also mustachioed. But, married or no, he’s found himself in love with the beautiful Angela, who could best be described as his 16-year-old first cousin (yow). And since Sicilian law forbids divorce but considers murdering your adulterous spouse in defense of your honor a minor offense, our Fefe sets in motion a very elaborate plot to lure Rosalia into a tryst with an old flame so he can shoot her dead and skate away clean with Angela on his arm.
Did I already say yow?
Is It Good: It’s fantastic, and not only in the traditional senses. Yeah, Germi directs the hell out of it – his eye for moving traffic through a scene is impeccable and the way he balances the first-person and third-person narrative is impressive. Not to mention the way he bounces through the story, keeping things brisk and light and bouncy and managing to find the humor (or at the very least the absurdity) in some of the darker elements while still giving the darkest of the darker elements the proper weight and respect.
And the performances are all aces as well. The support staff doesn’t really have a lot to do but portray a singular emotion each, but they all do it wonderfully. Our leads all carry themselves effortlessly through each of their scenes with Sandrelli being the only one who isn’t asked to do a whole lot other than be pretty and young and dramatic. But she does all three really well.
But again – those are the traditional cinematic barometers of quality and yeah, all of those marks are hit really well, but, as it is with all art, it’s not the technique, it’s what the technique is in service of. And here it seems to be in service of what may very well be my favorite cinematic depiction of love. Typically (and the more cinematically educated of you will be able to throw examples to the contrary at me by the handful, yes) love is The Best Thing. It’s The Thing Worth Fighting For. The Thing That Conquers All. The Thing That Saves the Day. The Only Thing You Need. Early in the narrative it can be The Worst Thing or The Thing That Stinks but everybody comes around in the end. People ride off into the sunset, or they kiss, or they do both, or they sing of their devotion in the Shake Shack before they ride off into the clouds in a burgundy convertible. And that’s sweet and it has its place for sure.
But here, what Germi seems to be saying is that yeah, love is sweet, but it’s kind of silly and temporary and people do some really REALLY dumb and repugnant shit in the name of it. Nothing lasts forever, says Germi, and whatever it is that you think you have with this other person isn’t real in any substantial sense. And yeah on paper that sounds super bitter and cynical, and while it is rather cynical, there’s no bitterness at all. In fact, there’s just a hint of sentimentality as there are scenes when characters are expressing their love or affection and he shoots it with an eye towards the romantic. There’s an uplifting quality to the scene where Fefe and Angela finally confess their love to one another in a field of flowers (icky familial/age stuff aside); an implied “aww” when Rosalia and her long lost Carmelo start their flirtation and proceed along their path toward rekindling their relationship. And it’s that balanced hand that gives the subtext its weight. Happily Forever After is a swell notion but it’s a naïve gamble rooted in innocence and idealism. And whether or not you agree with that notion, there’s something incredibly genuine about the way it comes across on screen and even though the plot beats get a little heightened and stylized (it was the ‘60s after all), they’re without a doubt rooted in realism and no matter how vehemently you believed in the notion of Happily Ever After you’d be hard-pressed to just outright refute the things that Germi seems to be saying.
I keep saying “seems to be” though because while that’s what I took away from it initially there’s no ignoring that one couple in the film that carry their young lusty rendezvous all the way to marriage and a baby and at no point at all are they ever held up to that harsh light of reality. Germi lets them be legitimately happy (and if they’re not he makes no effort to show it) and the only thing that’s different about them is that he’s the only dude in the entire cast that treats his female counterpart with any modicum of respect. And so it makes sense that he ends up happy while every other guy who treats women as objects to be manipulated or idolized or controlled or discarded or murdered winds up dead or humiliated or both. So while the whole love thing probably ended up being an unintended interpretation, it’s the tearing down of the whole patriarchal/chauvinistic thing that’s definitely on Germi’s mind and he does a damn fine job of selling those ideas.
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. It’s a breezy watch and even though it delivers if you decide to dig, it’s rewarding enough directly on the surface. I caught it in the Criterion section on Hulu+, so if you have that available to you then get after it.
Random Anecdotes: There’s a scene in the second act that revolves around a screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. And Germi made a big big deal out of it. Admittedly I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m curious if someone who has seen it (and has seen this) can fill me in on the context there. Thanks in advance!
Also, while the two characters aren’t really anything alike, I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Fox’s (the fantastic one) clicky whistle thing isn’t partly inspired by Mastroianni’s similar mannerism here. Probably not, but it definitely reminded me of it.
Cinematc Soulmates: How to Murder Your Wife. Dial M for Murder. I keep wanting to say Laura for some reason, but even if it doesn’t fit perfectly who needs another reason to watch Preminger direct Gene Tierney?