Regarded by most viewers and critics as one of the funniest movies ever to come from Italy and a top-notch demonstration of Marcello Mastroianni's strong comedic chops, Divorce Italian Style has also been promoted as a reformist social satire challenging longstanding traditions and taboos, even embraced as a kind of proto-feminist statement for a few key scenes that seem to advocate gender equity in defiance of the most retrograde of patriarchies. A proud descendant of dark comedies about crumbling marriages like Unfaithfully Yours, and the ancestor of films like 10 that illustrate the desperate measures erotically-fixated males will resort to in order to consummate their fantasies, Divorce Italian Style has a lot to say to any man fearless enough to look into its Freudian mirror. For me, the enduring impact of the film rests in its unerring, unsparing examination of the masculine psyche - well, if not a universal masculine psyche, at least a very common variant, familiar to just about every man who's lived a decade or more into a marriage, the contours of which are determined by social and familial impositions that clash with his personal, or to put it more bluntly, his self-gratifying preferences for the way things ought to be.
Director Pietro Germi, who also co-wrote the Oscar winning screenplay, concocts an ideal set-up for revealing the scheming inner workings of his 20th century male prototype. Drawing on fifteen years of experience making films in the neorealist style depicting the struggles of working class Sicilians, Germi used his intimate familiarity with that island culture's intense hybrid of Catholic piety and undiluted chauvinism to provide a perfect backdrop for this tragicomic tale of a man entering his prime of life, but shackled into a dull marriage at a time and place where divorce was illegal. After twelve years wedded to Rosalia, a shapely but incessantly clingy housewife whose annoying mannerisms and persistent smothering have just about worn her poor hubby down to the nub, he senses all too acutely the sapping away of his virility. Though he's a handsome fellow, and born into a form of small village nobility just on the brink of fading into irrelevancy, it's clear to him that he's locked in an unsatisfying rut, trapped by circumstance and increasingly pressed into a claustrophobic dead end. Beneath his implacably calm and dapper exterior, Baron Ferdinando Cefalu, or Fefe as he's fondly called by his familiars, is getting desperate. Hopefully my words have created a vivid enough impression of his predicament, but in case they haven't, this image, used in the opening credits, communicates that desperation ever so succinctly:
And so, as he flails about for some kind of exit from his dilemma, he lights upon that ego-enhancing solution so frequently resorted to by frustrated husbands since time immemorial: the affair with a younger woman. So bewitching to the wandering eye, so compliant to the whims of a lustful imagination, offering sweet satisfaction through a reverie of "what might be" once released from those rashly spoken marital vows of his naive, inexperienced youth. Fefe's indulgent daydreams, which settle upon the comely nubility of his sixteen-year old cousin Angela as his chosen object of desire, gradually take on a life of their own, emboldening him to take action, though only of the most discretely voyeuristic sort. After all, the Baron is firmly established in a prominent social role in his stifling milieu, with advantages too good to give up in exchange for dreadful uncertainty, however incapable of providing the soul-stirring satisfaction that gives life its vitality.
But it's hard to indefinitely contain and corral that yearning gaze upon the supple, immaculate body of the young virgin, to remain unmoved by the allure of that soft swishing toss of her skirt as she strolls across the piazza, accompanied of course by hawk-eyed older female guardians who know exactly what lurks in the hearts of the Sicilian men perpetually crowding those public spaces. Fefe is overcome by the urge to act, to break free before becoming hopelessly mired in long-term middle-aged ennui, a last defense against the onset of chronic belly pudge and facial tics borne of unresolved conflicts between his conscience and his cravings. His is a perfectly rational and reasonable response to life's impossible demands, which he's prudent enough to confide in exactly nobody, since it goes without saying that such obvious truths are much too risky to share, lest they be exposed to the withering condemnation of the omnipresent and relentlessly intrusive moral authorities.
The bottom line, the unspeakable resolution that Fefe finally must wrestle with, springs to life in this clip of his first of several murder fantasies, which gradually become more grounded in the real world as he weighs his various option. Years of repressed frustration and rage come to fruition and find their release in a burst of angry violence, and then... disposing of the evidence.
From this point going forward, with homicidal seed firmly planted and now taking root, the Baron's plans evolve into a patiently calculated and cultivated plan. After a skillfully conducted (that is, innocent-seeming, apparently coincidental) rendez-vous with Angela, the supple, doe-eyed, easily excited, tremulous teenager as she wondrously picks a bouquet of spring flowers which serves to confirm their mutual desires for each other, more murder fantasies ensue - darkly hilarious (along the vein of Kind Hearts and Coronets) in their absurdity (losing her in the mythical quicksand pit) and vital in their currency (dropping her into the latest experimental rocket to outer space.) But these wild whimsies are mere escapism, and Ferdinando is, above all else, a patient and cultivated gentleman, at least according to appearances. So he takes careful note of the precedent, established by the Sicilian code of honor, that allows a spouse extra leeway in dispensing fatal vigilante justice on a partner who's caught in the act, especially if the defense attorney can articulate the case with a vibrant operatic flair. He makes mental note of the risks and rewards of involving the local mafioso in his maneuvers. He strategically showcases his wife's assets with an eye toward luring in a would-be paramour. He mentally rehearses the spellbinding narrative that will find its way into the court records, of how his once-faithful wife abandoned her scruples to become the tramp who sullied the good and illustrious Cefalu name, prominent in Sicilian society since the time of the Crusades. All the while remaining blind to the obvious fact that what he's contemplating with Angela is the exact same "dishonor" upon his wife that he's so eagerly wishing she'd levy against him for his own manipulative ends.
Perhaps under the pressure of his mounting frustrations, or the inherent incongruity of his ambitions and his flattering self-image, Fefe finally snaps one night, withdrawing from his wife into his own isolated study chamber, obliterating his conflicted emotions with ravenous gulps of brandy. After a fitful night of boozy indulgence, the church bells, a continuous, invasive, overbearing presence throughout the film, crashingly ring in "the morning after."
Secretly observing his wife as she pores through a hidden stash of old love letters, Fefe discovers they'd been written many years earlier by the perfect patsy, an apparent godsend - Carmelo Patane, listed as MIA from the war, a godson of an old priest, without kin or social status - the disposable sap whom nobody would miss or even mourn his loss... nobody whose opinion mattered anyway.
Brought into his house on the pretext of doing some art restoration, Fefe observes the telltale reaction of Rosalia and Carmelo as they set eyes on each other. As the final details come together with crystal clarity, his plot kicks into motion and he begins to assemble the necessary tools for his caper - tape recorder, hidden microphone, carefully stashed weapon, a pre-rehearsed monologue to be delivered in court by the attorney whose favor he curried with a fine bottle of wine, anonymous "warning letters" mailed to himself to serve as future evidence in support of his case - with the single-minded determination normally associated with heist films. In a way, Fefe is as methodically and single-mindedly engaged in his own jailbreak as the inmates of Le Trou.
Each step of the twisted path that Fefe travels falls perfectly into place, further confirming him in his folly, lending precious reassurance that he's got the moxie to pull off the outlandish caper after all. His clandestine bug reveals that Rosalia and Carmelo have planned something, presumably a tryst, for the following evening, a night when the entire village will be consumed by the opportunity to view Federico Fellini's scandalous new film, La Dolce Vita. It's an amazingly meta moment, as a film starring Marcello Mastroianni quotes another film starring Marcello Mastroianni, even though the movie posters used as La Dolce Vita advertisements in Divorce Italian Style don't mention his name, nor do the borrowed stills or film clips feature his image (focusing instead, and rightly, on Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimee.) That would just be one step too far down the self-referential path. But it's a brilliant retort to the jet set glamour and frivolity on display in Fellini's seminal prophecy of what the 1960s had in store for Western civilization, especially the priceless scene of the tough, grizzled working class mugs taking in the decadent spectacle, in equal parts defiant of the priestly condemnations leveled at the film and dismissive of the facile hipsterism of the local communist party organizers trying to galvanize some class consciousness among the masses.
Ferdinando's plans are spectacularly thwarted as he discovers that Rosalia's plan was not for an intimate encounter in the parlor but to pack her bags and run away with her bohemian loverboy. There's no plausible moral outrage if he doesn't catch them immediately in the act. Now he becomes the laughing stock, an impotent contemptible weakling unable to summon manly courage and exact his righteous revenge. Angela's mixed-up letters deliver a fatal shock to her father as he reads her love note intended for Fernando. Before and during the funeral, Fefe is looked upon with scorn by the villagers, ultimately one-upped by Carmelo's jilted wife, the entire Cefalu family bearing the burden of Ferdinando's disgrace. But Angela is there to wipe Immacolata's spit off his cheek. And finally, he is moved to act out his belated, murderous revenge.
The homicidal act pleads down efficiently enough, the judge, jury and spectators all more than willing to reduce Ferdinando's sentence to its bare minimum in exchange for the validation his sordid tale gives to their ancient beliefs and traditions. Resuming the opening sequence of the film, of Baron Fefe aboard the train that will bring him back home, we're reminded that the bulk of the film is a long, drawn-out flashback that serves as a prelude to the destiny he's about to encounter. Signor Cefalu returns to Agramonte to a hero's welcome, his family honor restored, and all the elements in place for the happiest of endings, all things considered. But he only has one thought in mind, of course - the realization of his carefully enacted plan: a reunion with Angela and a sublime, guilt-free enjoyment of the fruits of her freshly-ripened womanhood. The waters are placid, the sun shines brightly, the oppressive humidity of his years with Rosalia refreshed with a cool ocean breeze. Life begins at 40 after all, he smirks to himself, laying a sweet luscious kiss on his young bride, who plays footsie with the crew, and the ship sails on...
Next: Night Journey