An entertaining ensemble comedy about the extremes one man goes to circumvent Italian divorce laws, Divorce - Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana, 1961) was a big hit in Italy as well as on the American art house circuit. Americans were undoubtedly drawn to the scandalous nature and then-steamy sexuality of its script, as well as to its thickly-lacquered Sicilian atmosphere - this is an Italian film full of exaggerated if funny Italian stereotypes. Criterion's supplements work to put the film into sociopolitical context, an important component of the film's and its director's reputation in Italy, but one generally lost on non-Italians.
Fernando "Fefe" Cefalu (Marcello Mastroianni) is an idle, bored baron of a minor-league family dynasty in the Sicilian town of Agramonte. He shares the decaying family estate with his wife of 12 years, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca); his sister, Agnese (Angela Cardile), often in the throws of passion with boyfriend Rossario (Lando Buzzanca); his dirty old man of a father, Don Gaetano (Odoardo Spadaro), and others.
Though his wife is undeniably sweet, affectionate, and doting, she's also become something of a grotesque, what with her mustache and long, single eyebrow. Fernando, meanwhile, has fallen passionately, obsessively in love with his 16-year-old first cousin, Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), a blonde newly home after several years at the Convent of the Seven Sorrows. When he discovers that she's in love with him, too, Fernando brews an elaborate plot to set-up his wife with a former lover, painter Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste). Certain to eventually catch them in a compromising position, Fernando plans to murder his wife, spend a few years in prison, then emerge to marry his beloved Angela.
On the surface, Divorce - Italian Style is little more than an entertaining but lightweight satire benefiting greatly from the rich characterizations given to even minor characters by director Pietro Germi and co-writers Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti. The picture is anchored in Mastroianni's marvelously roguish Fefe - he's like an Italian version of Toshiro Mifune's unkempt yojimbo: a slovenly aristocrat, his eyes half-closed with listlessness, he constantly scratches himself, preens his sometimes slicked-back hair, and vulgarly cools his feet in front of an electric fan. But even minor characters are given careful consideration and by the end of the film the Cefalus have taken on the familiarity of a real family, with all their quirks and vices.
Another major asset is Carlo di Palma and Leonida Barboni's cinematography, Carlo Egidi's production design and Sergio Canevari's set decoration which, for a comedy, is uncharacteristically dark and baroque. The underlit, musty interiors of the Cefalu estate is beautifully realized, and in many ways the film evokes the subtle, underrated visual flair of Billy Wilder. Like Wilder, Germi takes his time developing his characters, while at the same time bombarding his audience with a constant flow of expression and movement. For a 44-year-old movie, Divorce - Italian Style moves at a fast clip; it's so well-paced as to feel very contemporary.
Video & Audio
Divorce - Italian Style is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer. The image is rather rough during the opening titles and in all process shots, but otherwise looks great. A good part of this film's enjoyment is taking in the cinematography, and the transfer does not disappoint here. There's great definition and solid blacks throughout. The Italian mono sound is good for what it is; early '60s Italian mixing was not the best, but this presentation maximizes the available audio elements. The optional English subtitles are clear and easy to read. My one complaint is that the famous title song is not subtitled, a shame.
All of Divorce - Italian Style's supplements are found on the title's second disc. First is a 38-minute documentary by film critic and Germi biographer Mario Sesti, The Man with a Cigar in His Mouth (1997). The full-frame show is somewhat pretentious but packed with worthwhile interviews with colleagues and younger filmmakers. Included are comments by directors Carlo Verdome, Mario Monicelli, Damiano Damiani, Daniele Luchetti, Paulo Virzu, Giuseppe Tornatore, and Otar Ioseljani; screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni, Leo Benvenutti, Ennio De Concini, and Furio Scarpelli; actors Also Puglisi, Stefania Sandrelli, Franca Bettoja, and Claudia Cardinale; cinematographer Aiace Parolin; composer Carlo Rustichelli, and others. One gets the sense from their comments that Germi was an inexpressive, introverted man off-camera who nonetheless had an innate sense of rhythm and was a superb editor, that he knew how to direct actors who were alternately terrified and in awe of his talent.
Delighting in Contrasts is a 30-minute featurette, also in full-frame format and filmed in 2003/4, featuring comments by Sesti and interviews with Divorce - Italian Style players Stefania Sandrelli and Lando Buzzanca. (It's too bad there isn't an archival interview with Mastroianni, who died in 1996.) A separate interview with [Ennio] De Concini, filmed for the Italian DVD of Divorce - Italian Style, is in 16:9 format and runs seven minutes.
The extra material concludes with two Screen Tests with Sandrelli (brunette here) and Daniela Rocca; both are in 16:9 format and run about four minutes apiece.
Separate but no less valuable is a 27-page booklet featuring essays by Stuart Klawans, Andrew Sarris, and Martin Scorsese, as well as a cast and crew list, and info about the transfer. The three essays complement one another nicely: Klawans's is mainly a literary analysis. Sarris offers a biographical overview of the director whose vast majority of films remain unknown outside Italy. And Scorsese offers a sweetly personal yet informed reflection on Germi's influence.
Though at nearly $40 SRP Divorce - Italian Style is overpriced, the film, the essays, and the documentary on director Pietro Germi are definitely worth serious consideration. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.