Though I've seen Marriage Italian Style described as a raunchy comedy, the 1964 motion picture is more peculiar than that. Though Vittorio De Sica's relationship story has all the tropes and structuring of a romantic comedy, complete with lovers' schemes, misunderstandings, and misapprehensions, the actuality of these machinations is rendered in darker tones. Marriage Italian Style is kind of a sad movie. Any laughs are born out of tragedy, like snickering when someone stubs his toe. Except here it's cruel giggling over a stubbed heart.
Marriage Italian Style teams the director with his two favorite stars, a year after all three of them won the Oscar for their lighter (and more satisfying) triptych Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Sophia Loren stars as Filumena and Marcello Mastroianni is Domenico. The two meet in 1942 during the German occupation of Italy. She is 17 and working in a whorehouse he frequents, and the randy pair end up getting it on during a bombing raid. Domenico is a hustler and black marketeer, and he runs into Filumena again a couple of years later while he is smuggling eggs. The two end up ducking out of bad weather and hiding in a bombed-out home--where they get it on. That's right, their first two sexual encounters are during an act of destruction and in the after effects of that same destruction. If you believe in omens, you can't find any more obvious than that.
The movie, which was written by an army of scribes (tellingly, De Sica's regular writer Cesare Zavattini is not numbered among them) and based on a play, details the long pseudo-courtship and ill-defined love affair between the two. Told along a standard timeline, but also as flashbacks within flashbacks, we see how over the decades Domenico uses Filumena's affection to his advantage, keeping her at arm's length, and stopping her from finding happiness elsewhere. He gets her out of the whorehouse and sets her up in her own apartment, but only to preserve his lease. He takes her home to meet his mother, but fails to tell her that she'll stay there to take care of the dying old woman. Filumena also takes charge of his bakeries, but Domenico keeps sleeping with the cashier girls. At the start of the movie, he is even planning on marrying one, prompting Filumena to her most desperate and drastic move yet.
The secret of the plot for Marriage Italian Style is that Filumena has secrets, too. She is not the pushover seen in Domenico's point of view, and when the movie switches vantage points, so too does the story shift into a different endgame scenario. What the woman has given up and her reasons for enduring have been her own, and the final act of the film is her trap closing in on a flummoxed Domenico. Sophia Loren is remarkable in the role, knowing when to keep her cards hidden, knowing how to obfuscate and distract so we don't catch her true motives. The character goes through various transformations throughout the movie, and we are able to examine her from different angles, and the actress has a clear conception of each. Though she is maybe not that convincing as a teenager (physically moreso than anything she does), she is very good as the woman in middle age. De Sica smartly undersells the aging technique, letting hair color and skin tone be enough; no wiry gray wigs or overdone wrinkles.
At times, Marriage Italian Style is difficult to wrap one's head around. Domenico is a total shit, and he treats Filumena awful. There is some satisfaction in seeing him get his due, though he does get off lightly. This is, after all, a movie that asks us to accept that the worst punishment for this guy would be to have to marry Sophia Loren. As far as jails go, it makes even the cushiest country club lock-up for white collar criminals look like a Supermax. Maybe there is some cultural difference here, or maybe it's De Sica subverting expectations. In most romantic comedies, there would be some redemption. We would either discover Domenico is better than we thought he was or he'd have a change of heart; instead, Filumena poses a question with an answer he can't live without. It seems obvious that if he got the answer, he'd be out the door; the fact that the movie ends with this riddle still dangling over his head is unsatisfying and unsettling. The vacant, resigned stares that serve as De Sica's final shot suggest it's intentional. If that riddle of what it all means were answered for the viewer, would Marriage Italian Style be even remotely the same movie?
As with any quality De Sica production, any debatable story points can be seen as superfluous next to the director's technique. Marriage Italian Style is a film expertly told, with a tricky approach to film convention and the filmmaker's usual masterful employment of real settings to create character and mood. His stars are also so good together, so comfortable in the presence of one another, that you could watch them do just about anything and have it be worth your while. Marriage Italian Style might leave you pondering what exactly just happened to you, but you won't be bored watching the mystery unfold. It's colorful and artfully constructed, and I didn't even mention the scene where Sophia Loren wears see-through lingerie. It's tough to go wrong with any of that.
Marriage Italian Style has been mastered for Blu-Ray at 1080p and shown as an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. It's a good looking digital transformation in terms of high-def authoring--no DNR, no compression problems, etc.--but there are problems with the picture quality that likely stem from the age of the movie and the source print. Though BD reviewers often praise the film grain when reviewing a disc, in the case of Marriage Italian Style, it can be distracting when paired with spotty resolution, like it sits on top of a faded image and adds to the softness of the cinematography. Colors are inconsistent at times, and the overall look of the digital transfer lacks the crispness we generally expect from full-scale restorations. This should not harm your viewing in any way, the film still looks great, but don't expect Marriage Italian Style to be one of those miraculous, revelatory Blu-Rays.
The Dolby mono mix here is pretty solid, cleaning up any outside noise or hiss, presenting a clear soundtrack where the dialogue shines and the music works as intended, without any off-tones or harsh distortions. The optional English subtitles also read clearly and move at a good pace.
The film comes with a trailer for the main feature and two other Kino releases from De Sica/Loren/Mastroianni--Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Sunflower--alongside an added promo piece for Marriage Italian Style featuring audience reactions to the film. There is also a stills gallery. All are presented in high-definition.
Recommended Marriage Italian Style is an odd duck. Is it a sex comedy minus the belly laughs, or a dark subversion of our romantic expectations? Or both? It probably doesn't matter, because the truth is, it's a movie put together very well by a cinema master alongside his two most popular stars. The combination of De Sica, Loren, and Mastroianni is always a safe bet. There is plenty of excellent work here, and the two leads have marvelous chemistry.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.