Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana)

Divorce Italian Style
(Divorzio all'italiana)
Director: Pietro Germi
Screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Pietro Germi, & Alfredo Giannetti
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni (Ferdinando Cefalú), Daniela Rocca (Rosalia Cefalú), Stefania Sandrelli (Angela), Leopoldo Trieste (Carmelo Patané), Odoardo Spadaro (Don Gaetano Cefalú), Margherita Girelli (Sisina), Angela Cardile (Agnese), Lando Buzzanca (Rosario Mulé), Pietro Tordi (Attorney De Marzi), Ugo Torrente (Don Calogero)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: Italy
Divorce Italian Style Criterion Collection DVD
Divorce Italian StyleIn the droll black comedy Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana), Marcello Mastroianni plays Ferdinando Cefalú, a genuine cad who, by all reasonable standards, should be utterly contemptible. Yet, Mastroianni’s cunning comic performance, the nimble script (which won an Oscar in 1962), and Pietro Germi’s assured direction turn all conventions on their head and actually make his character not only sympathetic, but oddly appealing.

Ferdinando is a Sicilian baron who, by dent of his powerful family, does not need a job and therefore spends his days hanging around the familial palace. His wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), is loving and doting, but often overbearing and suffocating, something Mastoianni conveys with constantly pained looks of annoyance and drooping eyelids that signify a general boredom and/or annoyance with everything around him. The only time he seems alive is when he’s in the presence of his 16-year-old cousin, Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), after whom he lusts shamelessly.

Because the law keeps Ferdinando from simply divorcing Rosalia, the only way to rid himself of her and be with Angela is to kill her. He entertains a number of fantasies regarding her demise, including stabbing her in the back and dumping her in pot of boiling soap, hiring hit men to shoot her, and, in the wackiest scenario, sending her into outer space on a rocket. Alas, none of these will work because they will be cold-blooded murder and will therefore land him in jail for the rest of his life.

The only other option is to create a situation that will put Rosalia in the arms of another man, a circumstance that grants Ferdinando the right to kill her and only spend a few years in jail because he will have done so to “protect his honor.” Thus, the film’s central conceit and its structuring social joke is a self-centered cad planning to exploit the already exploitative cultural understanding that a dishonorable woman deserves death. In no way is Ferdinando actually protecting his “honor,” since he clearly has none, which suggests that the whole system is just an excuse for propping up an increasingly outmoded form of patriarchal machismo. At its heart, Divorce Italian Style is a farce about how men can become willing caricatures of everything that’s bad about masculinity, which is particularly evident in Ferdinando’s self-serving voice-over narration, which sometimes lapses humorously into rapid-fire interior monologues.

In this respect, Mastroianni’s performance is crucial to the film’s success, especially since he was at the top of his career in the early 1960s as a paragon of brooding Italian male sexuality. The year before he has starred as the playboy journalist in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), which makes an amusing cameo in Divorce Italian Style. In a sense, Ferdinando is a riff on Mastroianni’s character from La dolce vita -- what happens when the playboy finally settles down? He becomes miserable and starts itching to get back to his wandering ways. The irony in Divorce Italian Style is that the cultural/social system that is meant to reinforce family life, honor, and faithfulness is turned upside-down by Ferdinando’s sneaky plan to off his wife by cajoling her into the arms of another man (who happens to be a former boyfriend).

Director Pietro Germi’s name is virtually unknown outside Italy, although he won an Oscar for cowriting the script for Divorce Italian Style. Although he is arguably as assured and influential as the more luminous directors in Italian cinema (Fellini, De Sica, Visconti, etc.), Germi has remained largely unknown in the United States. Some have likened him to either Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, even though Divorce Italian Style was his first comedy. It’s surprising it took him so long, as Germi has fantastic comic sensibilities, which range from a witty playfulness with dialogue, to gradually built and sustained sight gags, to the use of Ferdinando’s hair as a visual barometer of his emotional state.

Germi began his filmmaking career making neorealist films in the 1940s, after which he focused primarily on dramas and thrillers. His filmmakers’ eye is certainly apparent, as Divorce Italian Style matches its verbal wit and thematic sharpness with beautiful cinematography and precise framing. Germi’s neorealist roots serve him well, as his comic timing is deeply informed by a sense of how everything that’s funny is just one notch off from outright tragedy.

Divorce Italian Style DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioItalian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Pietro Germi: The Man With the Cigar in His Mouth 39-minute documentary
  • “Delighting in Contrasts” 30-minute collection of interviews with Sesti and actors Lando Buzzanca and Stefania Sandrelli
  • Interview with screenwriter Ennio De Concini
  • Screen-test footage of actresses Daniela Rocca and Stefania Sandrelli
  • 28-page booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans and reprinted pieces by director Martin Scorsese and film historian Andrew Sarris
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateApril 26, 2005

    Divorce Italian Style is certainly one of the more stylish and visually intriguing comedies you’re likely to see, and Criterion’s new anamorphic transfer does it full justice. The transfer was taken from the original 35mm negative using a wetgate process, and then digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. They are still a few sneaky vertical hairlines and small amounts of damage at the bottom of the frame in one shot, but otherwise it is as pristine and clear as you could hope for in a 45-year-old film. The contrast is very sharp throughout, with extremely bright whites and inky blacks that maintain excellent shadow detail (see, for example, the scenes in Ferdinando’s darkened study).

    The monaural soundtrack was transferred from the original 35mm optical soundtrack and digitally fine-tuned, and it sounds good throughout. There is a slight bit of ambient hiss now and then, but it’s barely noticeable.

    The supplements on this two-disc set seem to be designed primarily to acquaint audiences with director Pietro Germi. Thus, the supplemetary disc opens with Pietro Germi: The Man With the Cigar in His Mouth, a 39-minute documentary by critic and filmmaker Mario Sesti. It features numerous interviews with Germi’s longtime friends and collaborators, including his editor, cowriter, and production designer, along with current Italian directors who discuss his influence on their craft. “Delighting in Contrasts” is a 30-minute collection of interviews with Mario Sesti and actors Lando Buzzanca and Stefania Sandrelli. There is yet another interview with screenwriter Ennio De Concini, and some rare screen-test footage of actresses Daniela Rocca and Stefania Sandrelli. Lastly, the 28-page booklet includes a new essay by film critic Stuart Klawans and reprinted pieces by director Martin Scorsese and film historian Andrew Sarris that were written for a 1999 retrospective of Germi’s work.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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