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Divorce Italian Style

Divorce Italian Style
Criterion 286
1961 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 min. / Divorzio all'italiana / Street Date April 26, 2005 / 39.95
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Daniela Rocca, Stefania Sandrelli, Leopoldo Trieste
Cinematography Leonida Barboni, Carlo Di Palma
Production Designer Carlo Egidi
Film Editor Roberto Cinquini
Original Music Carlo Rustichelli
Written by Ennio De Concini, Pietro Germi, Alfredo Giannetti, Agenore Incrocci
Produced by Franco Cristaldi
Directed by Pietro Germi

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. His 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
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 Solaris.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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