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DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Daniela Rocca, Stefania Sandrelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Ugo Torrente, Angela Cardile, Lando Buzzanca
Director: Pietro Germi
Audio: Italian monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Pietro Germi: The Man with the Cigar in His Mouth, Delighting in Contrasts, screen-test footage, interview, 28-page booklet
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2005

"In the vivid imaginations of my townsmen, women took on mythical status."

Film ****

In this confusing modern era of rampant divorces, common-law marriages, and same-sex unions, one almost begins to feel nostalgic for the "good ol' days" when a marriage was a simple and sacred vow between a groom and a bride 'til death did them part.  There were no divorces, and if a fellow tired of his wife, or vice versa - well, too bad.

Forty years ago, the predominately Catholic nation of Italy certainly embraced this principle.  Cultural and social mores may have changed in the intervening years, but there was indeed a time in Italy when divorce was illegal, end of discussion.  In fact, the only proper conclusion to any marriage was the eventual death of a spouse.

On this note, we come to the very premise of the satirical black comedy that is Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961), which completely and amusingly uproots the sanctity of marriage.  How does a married Italian man, smitten with another woman, squirm his way out of marriage in an era when divorce is strictly forbidden?  Particularly, if that man happens to be Sicilian, what ought he to do?  Well, the basic solution would be to simply kill the wife and presto-chango, instant divorce, Italian-style. 

Of course, no one is advocating the slightest preponderance of murder as a rational solution for an unhappy family situation, but it can certainly offer a wealth of comic potential within a black comedy milieu.  Variations on the theme have played successfully in such classic films as Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Kind Hearts and Coronets with Alec Guinness, and Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.  Divorce Italian Style is Italian superstar Marcello Mastroianni's turn in the spotlight, and his performance is a hilarious triumph of slow-burns, nervous tics, and pitch-perfect comic timing.

Today, Divorce Italian Style is probably the best-known film by Italian neorealist Pietro Germi.  Initially honing his craft in Rome's famous Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in the mid-1940's, Germi gradually became known primarily as an introverted but gifted director of "serious" films and dramas.  Divorce Italian Style was not only his first comedy and greatest international success, but it also cemented the worldwide appeal of its legendary lead actor, Marcello Mastroianni.

During the early 1960's, Mastroianni was near the very peak of his tremendous popularity.  Thanks to the widespread acclaim for his starring role in Frederico Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni became a household name at a time when few Italian actors were recognized abroad.  Germi's black comedy, with Fellini's to arrive soon thereafter, would establish Mastroianni as the quintessential Continental lover, a reputation that the actor maintained throughout his career.

In Divorce Italian Style, Mastroianni portrays a bored baron and faux sophisticate by the name of Fefe Cefalů.  Living in the sunny Sicilian town of Agramonte, Fefe is a man accustomed to having his whims satisfied within Sicily's patriarchal society.  He regularly spies upon his luscious, teen-aged cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli) in her bedroom window and, in an epiphany of desire, decides that he loves her and must have her for the ideal trophy wife.  Their twenty-year age difference and blood-relation issues aside, there is another slight obstacle - Fefe is already married to a doting and attentive wife of over a dozen years, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca).

Sweet Rosalia!  Her unwavering devotion becomes almost overbearing to the frustrated Fefe who, after much soul-searching and fanciful dreaming, decides that the only way to have Angela is to rid himself of his wife.  Under the obsolete Sicilian penal code, Fefe's best option is to manipulate his wife into having an extramarital affair, whereupon he would then be justified in committing a "crime of passion" upon her to restore honor to his name.  In fact, Article 587 of the Sicilian Penal Code is specifically worded to address such a circumstance:  "He who causes the death of a spouse, daughter, or sister upon discovering her in illegitimate carnal relations and in the heat of passion caused by the offense to his honor or that of his family will be sentenced to three to seven years."

For a crime of passion, Fefe's only punishment would be a few paltry years' imprisonment, after which Angela would furthermore be his!  It is a small price for such a lovely reward.

Regrettably for Fefe, the fact that Rosalia has heretofore remained completely faithful to the marriage renders many of his concocted ploys useless.  Nevertheless, un-dutiful husband that he is, Fefe endeavors to drive his wife into the embrace of another man and eventually finds that ideal candidate in Carmelo Patane (Leopoldo Trieste), a suitor from Rosalia's youthful past.  Such are the trappings of lust and fickle love!  Fefe's nubile sixteen-year old cousin Angela might as well be an Italian Lolita for the irrepressible urges and Machiavellian determination she arouses in Fefe.

The hypocrisy of Sicilian male-dominated cultural mores is further revealed in Fefe's own attitude towards his own sister, Agnese (Angela Cardile).  He repeatedly stumbles across Agnese in intimate situations with young Rosario Mule (Lando Buzzanca), a man not yet her husband, but Fefe gives these chance encounters no second thought, a running joke in the film that further serves to add an element of the ridiculous to Fefe's own crazy schemes.

Agramonte being a small town, the mélange of dramatic and comic scenes which ensue provides a sort of social theater for bemused friends, neighbors, and onlookers alike.  After all, in the stiflingly hot Sicilian climate that lingers like a perpetually lethargic haze over the beaches, streets, and sun-bleached villas, there is simply nothing much else to do or watch.  Such voracious communal gossip is, in a sense, akin to Fefe's own addiction to voyeurism of his cousin as well as his own wife.

In addition, Fefe's infatuation with Angela may well be borne not just of boredom with his own marriage and lust for youthful excitement but also perhaps of an unspoken resentment of his uncle, Don Calogero (Ugo Torrente).  Angela's father, Don Calogero has bought up much of the Cefalů real estate and holdings over the years, rendering Fefe's own family relatively destitute.  To ensnare Angela would not only do certain grievous injury upon his uncle's pride and honor, but it would also ensure that the Cefalů wealth remain strictly with the Cefalůs.

The story, narrated in a straight manner, might seem pretty despicable.  But as a black comedy, Divorce Italian Style succeeds rather well and provides a satirical poke at the double standard of Sicilian machismo.  Possessing a passionate yet humorous tone, Germi's film has lost little of its stinging wit and bite over the years and remains as enjoyable now as forty years ago.  Culture standards and social rules of acceptance may have changed since Divorce Italian Style was first released, but base human desires and emotions never do.  Perhaps in the annals of human history, no emotion more than love has caused so much anguish, heartbreak, or laughter.

Video ***1/2

Divorce Italian Style is presented in its original black & white, 1.85 aspect ratio.  The transfer was created from the 35mm original negative onto a dual-layer DVD-9 disc and looks near-pristine.  Details are sharp with crystal-clear definition.  There are no discernible scratches and dust specks and only a mild density pulsing from time to time.  The transfer rate averages 8 Mbps.

Audio ***

Divorce Italian Style is presented in its original Italian with optional English subtitles.  As with all Italian soundtracks of this era, the audio is post-dubbed with the usual, occasionally mismatched lip-synching.  This is a characteristic of Italian films of the time and does not reflect an error in the transfer process.  The soundtrack was mastered from the original optical soundtrack negative and a pleasantly-restored soundtrack.  For a monaural film, Divorce Italian Style sounds quite nice.

Features ***1/2

Divorce Italian Style arrives from Criterion as a double-disc set.  The first disc contains the movie, while the second disc holds the bonus features.  I would recommend watching the film first before exploring the contents of the second disc.

The first feature on the second disc is Pietro Germi: The Man with the Cigar in His Mouth (39 min.).  This documentary, narrated by critic and filmmaker Mario Sesti, takes a look at the career of the Italian director and his unorthodox script-writing and directorial methods.  Germi's former cast and crew colleagues recall working on the set of Germi's various films and even remember his abilities as an actor.  Photographs, movie clips, and rare behind-the-scenes footage are interspersed throughout the documentary to provide more insight into Germi as a personality and as a director.

The second documentary, Delighting in Contrasts (27 min.), features interviews with Stefania Sandrelli and Lando Buzzanca.  The actors speak candidly about their initial encounters with Germi and their impressions of him.  They also relate anecdotes about working on the set of Divorce Italian Style.  In addition, filmmaker Mario Sesti appears for further commentary on Germi's cinematic style, personal beliefs, and artistic talent.

There is also an interview (7 min.) with Ennio De Concini.  The screenwriter discusses how he, along with Germi, adapted the premise behind the Arpino book "Crime of Honor" for Divorce Italian Style.  De Concini speaks about the film's reception and star Mastroianni's generosity, too.  Coincidentally, Divorce Italian Style was nominated for and won the 1962 Oscar for Best Screenplay.

The final extras provided on the disc are rare screen-tests (8 min.) for actresses Daniela Rocca and Stefania Sandrelli.

Lastly, a 28-page booklet is included and contains essays from film critic Stuart Klawans, director Martin Scorsese, and film historian Andrew Sarris.  "The Facts (and Fancies) of Murder," by Klawans, focuses on the film's themes, motivations behind the character of Fefe, and also briefly on Germi's directorial career.  "Pietro Germi: Idealist with No Illusions," by Andrew Sarris, defends the director, offers more background about his films and his acting career while rebuking Germi's reputation as a supposedly "lesser" neorealist director.  "On Divorce Italian Style," by Martin Scorsese, reflects over the effect of Italian cinema upon the notable American director's own career.  Scorsese particularly elaborates on how Divorce Italian Style's emotional tone, with its occasionally primal or savage interludes, and tight pacing influenced Scorsese's own masterpiece Goodfellas.

Summary:

Divorce Italian Style is social commentary disguised as a witty and wry black comedy.  An enjoyable farce, this film solidified Marcello Mastroianni's status as a screen idol while delightfully mocking the stereotype of Sicilian machismo and Mafia sub-culture.  Kudos to Criterion for another fine release!

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