Who remembers 1961’s Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all’Italiana) today? An Oscar winner for its screenplay, with nominations for both its star (Marcello Mastroianni) and its director (Pietro Germi), it now for some reason languishes in the dusty zone where forgotten movies slumber. Perhaps it’s time to wake it up.
It’s a brilliant example of the “sex comedy”, that strangely chaste beast most typified by all those Doris Day and Rock Hudson/James Garner films about bullish males trying to get their leg over and virginal ladies saying no. Sex was never really the issue, it was marriage, an institution that was beginning to chafe in a much more liberal post-War world.
Germi wastes no time in getting thing going, sketching in the who, what and where at speed – Marcello Mastroianni plays the impoverished Sicilian noble stuck with a wife (Daniela Rocca) he can’t stand and with the hots for his young cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli, who was 14/15-years-old at the time). Realising divorce is an impossibility, the count decides that he needs to engineer it so he can catch his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. This will allow him to murder her and, using the “crime of passion” defence, escape with a relatively lenient sentence.
But first he has to catch his wife in the act, and since she’s a big woman with a moustache and a monobrow and no male admirers, that seems unlikely. However, that doesn’t stop him fantasising about her death, and in the film’s funniest sequences he runs through a series of scenarios – pushing wife Rosalia into a cauldron, luring her into quicksand, firing her into space in a rocket and so on. Poor Daniela Rocca, a former beauty queen in real life, suffers for her art.
There are more plot side alleys, involving the realisation by Ferdinando (Mastroianni) that Angela reciprocates his feelings, and that his wife might, in fact, once have had an admirer, a painter who can be encouraged to woo her again, perhaps.
The tone is French farce meets British Carry On meets the Hollywood sex comedy. In fact the Jack Lemmon/Virna Lisi/Terry-Thomas comedy How to Murder Your Wife of a couple of years later had clearly taken notice of Divorce Italian Style (an Oscar win will do that). What they all have in common is superb performers who understand that lightness of touch is everything, especially when, as here, your plot is based on murder most foul.
Mastroianni is born to play people who are sick of the sight of something and here he gives us a comedy version of the world-weary persona on display in La Dolce Vita or Fellini’s 81/2. As a little in-joke, at one point the entire town turns out to see a film that’s been causing a scandal wherever it’s been shown – it’s La Dolce Vita. As the audience look on, we see Anita Ekberg gambolling in the Trevi Fountain; we do not see Mastroianni.
Shot in the very finest monochrome by DPs Leonida Barboni and Carlo Di Palma (I suspect one of them did the fabulously sun-baked high-contrast exteriors and the other the carefully graded interiors), it’s a carriage-clock of a film, beautifully made in every respect. Notice how well all the side characters are drawn, even passers-by in the street have a character, and Carlo Rustichelli’s score is of the trembling-strings variety that now springs to mind whenever Sicily is mentioned, courtesy of The Godfather.
In its tale of a noble coming to terms with the modern world, it could be seen as The Leopard done as a comedy, though it’s a couple of years ahead of Visconti’s magisterial opus. And at another level it’s a delineation of the problems faced by women in patriarchal societies, and how women overcame them. Women have agency in this film, or more, at least, than you might imagine.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021