Pietro Germi’s satire of Sicilian machismo, Divorce Italian Style, unfolds within the stifling walls of a decaying palace in Agramonte, a town of “slow progress”. For the film’s protagonist, the impoverished aristocrat Baron Ferdinando ‘Fefè’ Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), the moldy summer heat reinforces his physical oppression, promoting lethargy where he is already nearly inert. But Fefè must also contend with the suffocating embraces of his love-starved wife of twelve years, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca). He seeks temporary relief in his study, and standing before the large wall mirror, assesses his situation.
Mastroianni, in undershirt and rumpled hair, preens himself, for our amusement and also his own. “Well, I guess I am a rather interesting man,” he says, head angled and eyebrows raised in keen examination. “Refined, intelligent,” he continues, “But that stomach! I’ll have to cut out fat, sugars and starches. I’ll have to cut out everything!” It’s a moment in which the actor, who one year earlier was marketed internationally as the seductive star of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), plays with the audience’s desire to look at him. In its self-mockery, it’s also a challenge to his cultural status as the archetypal ‘Latin lover’ of postwar Italian cinema.1 Germi’s film helps dismantle this persona, and Mastroianni is a willing, near giddy, participant.
Based on the 1960 novel Un delitto d’onore (Honour Killing) by Giovanni Arpino, Divorce Italian Style magnifies through comedy the problematic hypocrisies of heterosexual relations in postwar Italy. Perhaps affected by the repressive heat and the torpor of his days, Fefè decides to take action. Infatuated with his 16-year-old cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), he sees a way out, a loophole of sorts to the Catholic Church’s prohibition of divorce. Fefè is inspired by an honour killing case being tried in Catania, where a woman who murdered her cheating husband has become a heroine to the women of the south, so often seduced and abandoned by feckless men. Fefè contrives his own ‘crime of passion’; he will liberate himself from Rosalia by manipulating her into an affair with a former love, and then kill her to avenge his honour.
Divorce Italian Style was Germi’s first comedy, yet it shares many of the social and political concerns of his earlier dramatic work such as Il Ferroviere (The Railroad Man, 1956). It is a key example of commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style) – films that reflect the challenges faced by Italy during the postwar economic boom. The chaos and hypocrisies of the time are explored in films like Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, Dino Risi, 1962), Il Boom (The Boom, Vittorio De Sica, 1963), and the comedies of Mario Monicelli (including I soliti ignoti, 1958, known in English as Big Deal on Madonna Street). These films provoke genuine laughter alongside providing scathing social critique, realising with satire what neorealism had accomplished with melodrama.
Germi achieves a comic masterstroke by having us identify with a morally weak and reprehensible man. Rosalia’s nauseating neediness is contrasted with Angela’s quiet sensuality. The disparity between Fefè’s reality and his fantasy is exaggerated, as satire requires, through Rosalia’s excessive facial hair, grating voice, and saccharine poses, and the sudden, jarring Felliniesque close-ups of her face that feel like she is not only invading Fefè’s space but our own. By building our antipathy towards her, and through the intimacy of Fefè’s voiceover narration, Germi makes us complicit in his deeds. We cheer him on even as we condemn him.
Not just any actor could support Germi in this task. Mastroianni brings with him the weight of a star persona shaped by romanticism and sensuality that hooks and draws us in from the moment he first appears, hair slicked to the side, dark sunglasses, cigarette holder poised carefully at the corner of his mouth. But he is, as always, much more than just a beautiful face. In Divorce Italian Style it is Mastroianni’s commitment to jest that makes the film’s outrageous plotline a success. Without him we wouldn’t watch Fefè do so many dreadful things yet remain on his side. He endows the self-absorbed Fefè with a mien he wears often in dramatic roles – a look of world-weary boredom or ennui. Unlike its expression in La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), here it is a source of amusement. In front of the mirror, Mastroianni pulls faces and sucks in air through his teeth; he revels in performing, as Sicilians would say, like ‘un babbo’.2
If we laugh with Fefè as he runs around trying to hide the recording device that will trap Rosalia, we also laugh at the dexterity of Mastroianni’s performance. Mastroianni valued fun and here as Fefè his ability to tap into the absurd makes this arguably his greatest comic role. He draws on a physical style built upon minimalist facial expressions in a film that is all about the mutability of social performance. As a master of contradictions, Mastroianni positions Fefè on the fault line between desirability and disgust. He is one of many Mastroianni men – like Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita – who inhabits the two extreme ends of his screen persona: cool impassivity and volatile passion. As Fefè, he is bored and lustful, a charming rogue and a lecherous murderer.
Mastroianni’s dominant mode, vocally and visually, is deadpan. His eyes, already dark and heavy-lidded, wear additional makeup to create an even more louche expression. This quality is most obvious in the scenes in which Fefè fantasises about the ways he might kill Rosalia, where camera zooms take us inside his mind. The first, in which he imagines her stirring a hot vat of soap into which he will eventually throw her, is given an almost noirish quality. Later, when the family is at the beach, Fefè imagines Rosalia trapped in mud (she is buried up to her neck in the sand for her arthritis), and a smile passes across his face, an expression of barely contained delight.
Once Rosalia has run off with Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste), Fefè must embrace the role of cuckold as if shocked by what has transpired. He takes to his bed, faking a fever, and repeating, in his ‘delirium’, “why did you abandon me?” He savours the anonymous letters that arrive declaring his cuckolded status not as markers of shame but as proof of his success. Mastroianni plays this like a secret between him and the audience; we are the only people implicated in his depravity.
Yet Divorce Italian Style is a highly moral film. To say otherwise is to deny how Germi uses Fefè as a scalpel with which to dissect the authority of the Catholic Church, the judiciary, and ‘laws’ that made it more socially acceptable to kill your spouse than it was to divorce them. But even when he disappears over the hill and shoots Rosalia dead, Fefè doesn’t completely forfeit our regard. There is no true happy ending for him; we might feel Fefè gets what he deserves but we also pity him his foolishness, bred out of the stagnant world that bore and raised him. Divorce Italian Style inspires these enigmas by making use of Mastroianni’s greatest gift – his ability to remain sympathetic even when behaving badly.
Divorce Italian Style (1961 Italy 104 min)
Prod Co: Lux Film, Vides Cinematografica, Galatea Film Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Petro Germi Scr: Ennio De Concini, Pietro Germi, Alfredo Ginannetti, Agenore Incrocci (uncredited) Phot: Leonida Barboni, Carlo Di Palma Ed: Roberto Cinquini Prod Des: Carlo Egidi Cost: Dina Di Bari Mus: Carlo Rustichelli
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Daniela Rocca, Stefania Sandrelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Odoardo Spadaro, Angela Cardile, Margherita Girelli, Bianca Castagnetta, Lando Buzzanca, Pietro Tordi, Laura Tomiselli, Ugo Torrente, Antonio Acqua
- In her study Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2004), Jacqueline Reich suggests Mastroianni detested the label ‘Latin Lover’ from the moment it was granted until the end of his life. (p. 209). ↩
- The word ‘babbo’ in Italian is commonly used as an alternative to ‘papa’ for ‘father.’ In Sicily, across various dialects, it takes on new meaning, used to describe an ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’. ↩