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.