Film and Television Features

Divorce Italian Style (1961)

Comedy has been a staple of Italian cinema since the start of the sound era, but what is known as commedia all'Italiana came much later. There were lines that couldn't be crossed in those early years. Risqué situations, sarcasm and satire, essential ingredients for a proper Italian comedy, often met the censor's cut under the watchful eyes of the Catholic Church and government authorities. This repression impinged upon the very core of the Italian spirit, but nothing could be done during the age of Mussolini and his black shirts. In fact, satire was precisely the kind of stuff that would get you arrested. Satirists bit their tongue until after the war, laying the groundwork for the golden age of Italian comedy, which began with the international success of Marco Monicelli's Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958).


The Cinecittà studio complex, inaugurated by Mussolini himself, was now treading ground for a new breed of comedy writers and directors. This hotbed of comic creativity produced upstarts like Dino Risi, but it also reignited the careers of established directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Pietro Germi. Like De Sica, Germi was an actor-writer-director, but the comparisons end there. Though he never gained the international recognition achieved by De Sica, Germi played a larger role in integrating neorealist trends into mainstream cinema. Since his first feature, 1946's The Witness, his films had hovered between dramas and noir thrillers, often performing better at the box office than his neorealist peers. What set him apart was a strong visual style and a strict adherence to plot structure. The former drew comparisons to the pictorial style of John Ford; the latter, aligned with a satiric edge, won him the praise of Billy Wilder.


Germi was born in the Italian port city of Genoa in 1914, a crucial point in time that had him witness the rise of fascism and its gradual collapse into chaos at the end of the war. Though the dawn of democracy brought forth financial prosperity for Italy, many social issues remained unchanged. For one, divorce was still illegal, reflecting the influence of the Catholic Church on government policy. Germi never dodged social issues, and divorce would have been a weighty subject for a drama, but at the start of the 60s he was looking for new challenges. He wasn't a stranger to comedy; in fact, he directed his first comedy, La Presidentessa, in 1952, and there were plenty of light scenes in films like The Railroad Man (1955) and The Facts Of Murder (1959). Yet black humor was riskier, a form that seeks humanity in monstrous characters while oscillating between exaggeration and truthfulness. Divorce Italian Style achieves all this with panache. Firstly, it draws sympathy for the down-on-his-luck aristocrat Baron Fernandino Cefalù, played with disdainful pride by Marcello Mastroianni. Secondly, the story is told from his point of view, making the audience complicit in his plan to murder his clingy wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca) to marry his sixteen-year-old cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli).


We shouldn't like this man, but we find in him an unlikely combination of underdog and mastermind that wins us over. To accomplish his plan, Cefalù lures his wife into an affair with her old flame Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste). Cefalù has no qualms about being regarded as a cuckold; in fact, he expects it since local mores regard female virtue as sacred, demanding bloodletting as a response to infidelity. Though this assault on his honor will lower his stock temporarily, it will eventually win him the town's sympathy after killing his wife. With all this support behind him, the murder would be deemed a crime of passion by the male-chauvinist court, which would grant him a low sentence of three years. Things don't go exactly as planned for Cefalù, but every misstep along the way has us rooting for him.


The island of Sicily provided the perfect contextual backdrop for the plot. It was like a microcosm of Italy, reflecting its growing pains and its clashes between modern trends and conservative values. More importantly, it was also a place where patriarchal rules were still observed. Germi had fallen in love with Sicily while shooting In The Name Of The Law therein 1948, a film that dealt with the odd alliance between the landed aristocracy and the local crime bosses. He touches on that subject on Divorce Italian Style, but this time he focuses on the Sicilian character while examining other social alliances.


The small city of Agramonte is a tightly-knit community still resisting social change in the age of La Dolce Vita. Here is a place where the ruling political party's office is located by the steps of the local church, a significant portion of the population can't read, and the main form of communication is gossip. Though marriage to a teenage cousin is permitted, civil divorce isn't allowed. It all seems as if Christian morals and Ancient Rome customs are still battling it out in this patriarchal bastion. The jobless and childless Cefalù lives under these social tensions, aware that his only worth there is his aristocratic name. While seeking his freedom, he does so with some risk to his social standing, hatching his murderous plan with an understanding of the local rules and their loopholes, knowing that the standards applied to men and women are in his favor.


Germi sought a new visual approach for Divorce Italian Style. A classicist at heart, his frames are carefully composed, with precise pans that never miss the well-choreographed staging. The new elements here are the quick cutting and the combination of travelling shots and zooms. These techniques would be used and abused by other directors as the decade drew to a close, but Germi was more judicious. Their purpose here is to capture the dynamism of Agramonte, which serves as Cefalù's antagonist. In group shots and close-ups, the town's prejudices and fears are can be read in the eyes of its denizens, who are ready to turn into a mob at the slight provocation.


With a best comedy award at Cannes and an Oscar for best original screenplay, Divorce Italian Style marked a new phase in Germi's career. He consolidated its triumph with the critical and commercial success of brilliant comedies such as Seduced And Abandoned (1963) and The Birds, The Bees, And The Italians (1965). He was still at the top of his game when died in 1974 while shooting a movie.


Italian comedy lives on, but good comedy movies are hard to come by. There are fewer writers and directors with enough imagination to give a comedic spin to real-life issues. All around the world, modern life gives us enough context to sharpen our satiric knives, yet filmmakers are too obtuse to find the joke and share it with us. What seems to be missing is Germi's keen mind, unsurpassed professionalism, and sensitivity to human behavior.