The Most Beautiful Fraud: Divorce, Italian Style
Well, I guess I am a rather interesting man — refined, intelligent. But that stomach, that stomach! (Baron Cefalù)
You never know what caprice will keep you away from a movie, and what whim will draw you in. Even during the last few years, when I’ve finally gotten around to educating myself on the remarkably rich history of Italian cinema, I’ve kept Divorce, Italian Style at arm’s length, thanks to a truly unfortunate title which, while essentially accurate, conjured up unpleasant memories of a specific type of insipid TV comedy in the 1970s. And what finally convinced me to give it a try wasn’t its good reputation, or the recommendation of any number of film-nerd friends with excellent taste who assured me it would be worth my while; it was the fact that when the Criterion Collection released a fancy new edition of the film, the box design was by Jaime Hernandez, a brilliant illustrator and one of my favorite comics artists of all time. It would pretty depressing to figure out how frequently we cheat ourselves out of pleasure for just such arbitrary reasons.
Anyway, to the matter at hand: Divorce, Italian Style, filmed in 1961, was directed and co-written by Pietro Germi. His early work was apparently in the Italian neorealist style that yielded so many gems in the post-war years, though I’ve seen only one of them (apparently his last) — 1957’s L’Uomo di Paglia, a solid but unspectacular romantic drama set in working-class Sicily. The island is the place where Divorce unfolds as well: southern Italy in a yellow-stained nutshell, a town of 18,000 with a literacy rate hovering somewhere around 20%, where the Communist Party hosts Sputnik dances, and where the heavy hand of the Church blocks movement in any direction.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Baron Ferdinando Cefalù, a down-at-the-heels nobleman, as either a perfect evocation of a louche aristocrat or a broad cartoon of a louche aristocrat. (It’s a tough call for me, honestly, since my experience of louche aristocrats is confined to having once seen George W. Bush drive past during a St. Patrick’s Day parade.) Cefalù is a slightly more well-behaved Gomez Addams: he wears neat suits that are just beginning to frazzle, puffs on cigarettes through an ornate holder, and sports a trim mustache and heavily Brylcreemed hair. In one of Germi’s more pointed satirical observations, the life of this broken-down aristo isn’t all that different from the deprived leisure of the town’s unemployed men, or the chattering old hangers-on who speculate about everyone’s love life. In Cefalù’s case, he suffers from a deep resentment of his aunt’s bourgeois husband (who occupies half of his ancestral lands, having paid off Cefalù’s father’s gross gambling debts), but lusts after the man’s daughter, the utterly gorgeous teenage Angela (played by the utterly gorgeous teenage Stefania Sandrelli).
Unfortunately for him, Cefalù is already married to the randy but shrill Daniela Rocca, and in a movie saturated with notions of the Church getting in the way of what people want, what they’re keeping him from is being shed of Rocca and hooking up with Angela. In an era when we’ve come to mistake complicated storytelling with effective storytelling, Germi does a fine job of presenting us with a lovely execution of the age-old trick of establishing the protagonist’s desire and forever yanking it away from him. It soon becomes clear, through a series of luridly crazed fantasies, that Cefalù’s preferred solution is to have someone seduce his wife, catch them in the act, and kill them both — those fine humanitarians in the Church will forgive a “crime of passion”, but not the dissolution of a failed marriage by divorce. That’s when it becomes clear that the title isn’t just a goof that loses its punch in the cultural translation: in 1961 Sicily, an Italian divorce is a euphemism for murder.
Describing the comedy in Divorce, Italian Style as satire is accurate to a degree, but Germi puts a lot of the sharper edges in the background. A lot of the jokes, and especially the character work (as with Rocca, Cefalù’s wallflower sister and her gurning clown of a fiance, and many other of the village idiots), are pretty broad, but other times, he slips in some unexpectedly sophisticated humor. (One moment early in the film, where Mastroianni modulates the volume of his voice-over, as if he fears his wife will hear him thinking about Angela, really caught me by surprise.) His background in realism, too, colors the humor, especially the topical bits about the commie sock-hops where men dance grimly with one another, and a screening of La Dolce Vita stirs up the town like a broadcast direct from the Planet of the Decadent instead of a movie made less than an hour’s flight away. It also carries into the visuals: the cinematography, mostly by future Woody Allen D.P. Carlo di Palmi, mixes a keen eye for architecture with some sharp, stark noir lighting, but it’s Germi’s eye that, even with two stars as photogenic as Mastroianni and Sandrelli, he gives plenty of space in front of the camera with various town grotesques that give it all a natural look — making the descents into jolly dark fantasy all the more effective.
There’s also some fairly subversive work bubbling under the script; it’s no Dr. Strangelove, but both visually and narratively, Germi and his team are telling us things aren’t always as they appear. Cefalù disdains the half-literate romantic gabble that comes out of his wife, even as he pines away for Angela, who has got her to a nunnery; he presents an impeccable public spectacle, all right angles and Persols, but at home he loafs around like the bums who are beneath even the notice of the lively Reds, looking like a disheveled oaf with even less vigor than the workmen who are always clanging around his estate.
There are a few unforgettable shots; my favorite was that of Cefalù staring through shutters — the film’s recurring motif for the just out-of-reach — with a deadly boredom in his eyes and acrid fumes from soapmaking in the courtyard swirling around. It shocks, coming just before his first gruesome murder fantasy, and could have come out of one of the better American crime dramas of the late ’50s or early ’60s. (The ones that follow are increasingly ridiculous, and include blasting her off into space on a Russian rocket as she cackles gleefully.) The plot takes equally strange turns, both towards the broad and the narrow: Cefalù’s murder plot is an overly complicated wheeze, but Angela’s father is a brute straight out of early Fellini, and Cefalù’s trial, where his attorney argues that his old man didn’t love him enough, plops right down in the middle of farce and tense realism.
Taking it in at such a far remove from its history, Divorce seems like a genre mash-up before its time, something the Coen Brothers might have done if you tossed them back half a century and replaced their arch formalism with more of the middle-class realism that sometimes burbles through in a movie like A Serious Man. Neither fish nor fowl but with a fine supply of flesh and some good red herring, it doesn’t entirely work as the culmination of a tour through neorealism into crime drama, nor is it completely successful as as a wide-ranging comedy. But as an ambitious amalgam of the two, it’s a bit ahead of its time, which is both a compliment and a criticism. Though more cunningly competent than transcendent, it’s absolutely worth seeing, and seems at its best to point forward to a new development in Italian cinema that never quite arrived.