Trains frame the story and provide its turning point; cars advance the plot. Through these vehicles, Pietro Germi offers locomotive relief in Divorce Italian Style, a comedy about the horrors of inertia.
More precisely, it is a film that wrings laughter from Fefè (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who has nothing to do and nowhere to go. By virtue of being the Baron Cefalù, Fefè is not merely a resident but a structural member of the town of Agramonte, where the only acceptable change from year to year is a fluctuation in the murder rate. Convention keeps him jobless; circumstances make him childless on the brink of middle age; and now mounting debt has confined him to a few rooms of decaying splendor in the old Cefalù palace. He’s as stuck as stuck can be—and since the law forbids divorce, the stickiest of all his predicaments is his marriage to Rosalia (Daniela Rocca).
She is a baked apple of a woman, oozing overripe sweetness, and as oppressive to Fefè as the Sicilian climate. You can easily imagine the mugginess of the air, because Germi puts a table fan in the foreground whenever he shows Fefè in his study. The more the fan turns, the hotter you feel; the hotter you feel, the more you share in Fefè’s exasperation at Rosalia’s clinginess. Germi has her relentlessly switch off the fan when she breaks into the study with hot, sugary coffee for Fefè. With some determination, Fefè can get the fan turned back on—but he can’t stop Rosalia from snuggling in to cadge just a teensy sip from his cup.
When a man is so trapped—especially a man who likes to remind himself of his descent from the Crusaders—he will yearn for freedom until it seems to materialize before him, in the shape, say, of his sixteen-year-old cousin Angela. Does Fefè begin to loathe Rosalia only after he’s fallen for Angela? Or is it his desperation that has made Angela appear so sweet, so pure, so lovable? I tend toward the latter reading of Divorce Italian Style, partly because Fefè narrates the story in voice-over, almost entirely in flashback, as a mélange of memories and fantasies.
As we plunge into Fefè’s mind, we find that its preoccupying images (apart from pictures of Angela) are church bells, water closets, and mirrors. The bells remind Fefè of the demands of the social theater. Everyone in his world is on show: not only in the church itself but in the Cefalù palace, where Fefè’s side of the divided family watches the opposite clan as if their wing of the building were a theatrical set (to be spied through opera glasses when Angela is on stage); in the streets, which are perpetually lined with the gossiping members of Fefè’s social club; at Agramonte’s movie theater, where the entire town shows up to watch La dolce vita; and in Catania, in the performing arts center that passes as a court of law.
Even Fefè’s study is permeable to the social world, given everyone’s determination to break in on him; and so the only truly private space is the water closet. In one of the great entrances in film history, he emerges from a water closet at the beginning of the movie, with the air of a man swaggering out of a nightclub. He disappears into one in the Cefalù palace when he wants to dream of Angela. As for the mirrors in the movie, they allow Fefè to contemplate the inner man, rather than the aristocratic figure who is on show throughout town. He pauses to look not so much at his face as at his thoughts; and what they show him tickles upward one corner of his mouth, in a gesture that’s half kiss and half degustatory smack.
So we come to the secret, ironic Fefè. In the social theater of Agramonte, he winds up acting a part that coincides precisely with his objective character: a cuckold. But the meaning of his abasement is as private as the water closet, as alluringly confidential as the mirror. Fefè alone knows that this shameful role might be a means to liberation. If he’s willing to kill, he can convert public disgrace into personal gain.
Why don’t we simply despise this man? The answer, in the first place, is that Angela is played by Stefania Sandrelli. Looking at her peach-perfect beauty, even the stoniest moviegoer may understand why Fefè becomes puppyish before her. The dreamy, sentimental effect on him of this particular object of lust turns him into a sap and so erases at least some of the twenty-one years’ difference in age.
We also hold back from despising Fefè, because we know he’s Mastroianni. The ghost of the actor’s fame hovers over his performance here, especially at the turning point of the story, which takes place during the scene of the town’s sold-out showing of the recent and already epochal La dolce vita. Suddenly, Mastroianni’s role in Divorce Italian Style acquires an invisible double. On the screen of the local movie theater, the cynical, sophisticated Roman journalist of La dolce vita chases (unseen) after Anita Ekberg, in sudden, stupid infatuation. At that same moment, Mastroianni’s Sicilian aristocrat—a would-be cynic and faux-sophisticate—goes chasing through the provincial streets, murderously pursuing the wife he doesn’t love but never imagined would actually leave him.
With malicious glee, Germi strips away the glamour of Fellini’s movie. (The faces of the Agramonte audience—rows and rows of roughly sculpted mugs, staring impassively at the screen—tell us all we need to know about the percentage of the Italian population represented by the characters in La dolce vita, compared to the percentage addressed by Divorce Italian Style.) At the same time, Germi exchanges the self-delusion of Mastroianni’s Roman journalist for something that is at once nastier and more sympathetic. The audience of Divorce Italian Style, having accepted Mastroianni’s voice-over narration as their guide to events, having seen for themselves the wonder of Angela, adopts Fefè’s point of view. We want to hurry him along when his wife absconds. We want him to catch Rosalia before she can get away on the train, so he can gun her down in cold blood.
Italy had produced funny caper films before this—notably Big Deal on Madonna Street, released only a few years earlier and also featuring Mastroianni—but I can think of no previous Italian movie that had invited the audience to participate in a murder and laugh about it. The closest antecedents may be American and British: Unfaithfully Yours and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Very different passions rule those pictures, though. The first dwells on a husband’s jealous, tortured fury (the emotion Fefè is supposed to feel but does not); the second, on the anti-aristocratic rage of someone whose status does not match his talents (and who therefore might want to add Fefè to the hit list).
But Divorce Italian Style is novel not only because it is Italian, and so the specifics of its satire differ from the Anglo-Saxon, but above all because it was Germi’s first comedy. What had he been waiting for? He had been directing films since the late 1940s, starting with neorealist dramas and going on, before Divorce, to a pair of popular films in which he played the lead: the social-problem melodrama Il ferroviere (The Railroad Man) and a police procedural, Un maledetto imbroglio (The Facts of Murder). There was scarcely a smile to be cracked in any of them. In fact, by the time he made that last, bitter film, his protagonists seemed to be living in a nation of spiritual and social blind alleys. The only escape for Germi, evidently, was to remove his tortured body from these culs-de-sac and put someone else into them, someone who would make us laugh.
And so Fefè does, from the moment his cigarette holder emerges from that water closet, followed closely by his sunglasses and beetle-wing hairdo. What self-approbation! What self-delusion! With a comic virtuosity that might have surprised even himself, Germi expands this initial, revelatory moment into a full-length masterpiece. Half the time he shows you the world through Fefè’s eyes, which see things obsessively, in quick cuts and repetitive close-ups and vertiginous zooms. The other half of the time, he shows you Fefè from the outside: a figure knocking about ineptly in slightly claustrophobic medium shots. The balance between the two modes of vision is unerring.
And so, too, is Germi’s sense of irony. His murderous comedy is finally about the longing for love and freedom—a longing that the trapped Fefè acknowledges in himself but fatefully, and hilariously, ignores in both Rosalia and Angela.
It is, of course, a perfect movie.
Stuart Klawans is film critic for The Nation and author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order.