Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An amusing comedy that was a stateside arthouse hit, Divorce Italian Style is one part
decadent nobility and two parts Bluebeard the ladykiller. Marcello Mastroianni proves he's
a master of clever characters in the role of a self-style smoothie who intends to get rid of his
pest of a signora and live to romance the girl next door. Divorce is unthinkable in
Catholic Italy, but for this hot-blooded Romeo, where there's a will there's a way.
The noble Cefalú family has fallen on hard times, and now rents out
a wing of their stately mansion. Although he keeps it to himself, Fernando Cefalú
(Marcello Mastroianni) is being driven to distraction by his witless, clinging wife Rosalia (Daniela
Rocca) and fantasizes various blood-curdling ways of disposing of her. That's before he lays eyes
on the neighbor's virginal (but frisky) daughter Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). A few hot nights
thinking about the girl next door, and Ferdinando is ready to try anything.
As naughty morality tales go, stories of men seriously considering bumping off their
better halves are
generally played for laughs. Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours makes similar use of
wish-fulfillment fantasies but is an out-and-out slapstick farce. The title
How to Murder Your Wife has
the right attitude but the film eventually turns around and votes in favor of domestic bliss.
Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style establishes a naturalistic reality that has little
room for low comedy. Ferdinando is a specific Sicilian gentleman with a noble reputation to protect,
trapped in a privacy-challenged society with little freedom to sneak out with the girl next door.
relatives are always around. Her relatives are always around. And he's forever chained to his
personal albatross, Rosalia. She's presented as a painfully ovebearing, mothering lovey-dovey mess.
Germi has given her a moustache and exaggerated facial hair to make her seem even less appealing.
Ferdinando avoids Rosalia like the plague and does everything short of kick her out of bed, but she's
too thick-headed to get the message.
Ferdinando fills his idle hours with fantasies of killing her by various means (see the cover
illustration), all gleefully presented as fantasy blackouts similar to skits in
Kind Hearts and Coronets. 1
The difference is that Ferdinando knows he'll never be able to escape the consequences. If only
he could find some sap for Rosalia to have an affair with. Then he could burst in and kill her
in a flash of rage. With the "unwritten law" that says a man can defend his noble name against
a harlot of a wife - and a really good lawyer - Ferdinando might escape with a light sentence.
Our crazy Sicilian gets his chance when an artist comes to the villa to work on paintings. Rosalia
once knew him, and in fact still carries a torch for him. Perfect. Ferdinando makes contact with the
neighbor girl and seduces her in their own back yard, literally. Now all he needs is the
courage to act.
Divorce Italian Style doesn't make Ferdinando own up to any particular moral code, but it
does work out its own brand of justice, which is slightly cynical but satisfyingly appropriate. It's
yet another variation on the warning to, "Beware what you ask for." The film is true enough to
human nature - people will cut their own throats for desire - but also gives us a chance to consider
the nature of restrictive codes of conduct. The impossibility of divorce almost legitimizes
infidelity, mistresses, that sort of thing ... for men only.
Ferdinando is surprised to see his calculated 'fake' honor killing interrupted by a real vendetta
murder - the wife of the artist gets into the act as well, in the heat of an authentic aggrieved
passion. Yet the "honor defense" works for
Ferdinando because he's a man. It's all too much like the "honor" killings reported in wealthy
Third World families, in which a rich fellow's wife is done away with in one horrible way
or another, and prosecution is impossible because of collusion in the family ranks. Ferdinando's
fate may be poetically appropriate, but we're never asked to grieve for poor foolish Rosalia, who
just wanted to be loved. The movie is a real black comedy, inviting us to laugh at situations
but never quite letting us off the hook.
Criterion's DVD of Divorce Italian Style is one of their polished presentations with a
fine, high-contrast B&W image cleaned of all but the most miniscule imperfections. It's one of
their pricey double-disc sets with a second platter devoted to a number of new featurettes.
Critic/Author Mario Cesti's 40-minute docu has interviews with an impressive array of director
Germi's collaborators (he passed away in 1974), including Luciano Vincenzoni and other noted names.
Separate new and recent interviews are offered with actress Stefania Sandrelli, actor Lando
Buzzanca (Ferdinando's prospective brother-in-law), and screenwriter Ennio De Concini. We also see
Sandrelli's original screen tests along with those for Daniela Rocca, who appears to have had both
her 'moustache' and eyebrows exaggerated with makeup. She has a major role in the Freda/Bava
Caltiki, il mostro immortale and is normally very appealing. Director Germi appears to
stand in for Mastroianni for the screen tests.
A fat booklet has a long essay by Start Klawans and other pieces by Martin Scorses and Andrew Sarris.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Divorce Italian Style rates:
Sound: Excellent Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Pietro Germi: The Man with the Cigar in His Mouth, a 39-minute
documentary by Mario Sesti; Delighting in Contrasts, a 30-minute interview featuring
Stefania Sandrelli, Lando Buzzanca, and Mario Sesti; Screen-test footage of actresses Daniela
Rocca and Stefania Sandrelli; A new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 3, 2005
1. It's interesting that
for one of their fantasies, the filmmakers elect to shove poor Rosalia in a rocket and shoot her
off into space ... just as in the sci-fi film
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson