Once upon a time, in a country of the old, civilized Europe, an article of the civil code allowed a rapist to go free if the victim agreed to marry him. The wedding voided the crime. And once upon a time, which after all was not so long ago—less than fifty years—in the old, civilized Europe, there was a filmmaker who was very angry about the cultural flaws of his civil society and made a film accordingly: with courage, rage, and a lot of dark humor.
Pietro Germi’s previous film, Divorce Italian Style, had been the stunning national and international success of 1961–62 and won an Academy Award for its script. The only place where it flopped was in southern Italy: the local public didn’t appreciate Germi’s bitter irony on such serious subjects as the so-called delitto d’onore—crime of honor—the real legal aberration by which the film’s fictional baron, Fefé Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), could kill his ugly wife, in order to marry the young and beautiful Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), and go free.
Three years later, in 1964, Germi and his team came back with a similar subject, in the second film of what would later become, together with The Birds, the Bees and the Italians, his trilogy of provincial Italy: Seduced and Abandoned, “sedotta e abbandonata,” a very popular locution in Italian society in those years not so far in the past. A locution that in real life sealed the destiny of so many girls and allowed their fathers and brothers to save the “honor” of the family by taking their revenge on the seduced, while the seducer could get away with it all by marrying the girl. As a character in the film puts it: “The marriage erases everything, better than a general pardon.” This is the most obvious subject matter of the film, even if in an extensive series of statements, collected by the Italian critic Orio Caldiron, Germi suggested that he was getting at something more complicated: “The existence of a provision of the Italian Code stating that if a man rapes a young girl, he must go to prison, but if he marries her, he doesn’t have to, is stupid and anachronistic. But what is more important is not so much the existence of this article but the fact that the majority of women would accept to get married.” What he wanted to explore, that is, was “a different set of morals, prejudices, and psychologies.”
Germi often said that he preferred by far the dramatic films he made before Divorce Italian Style—such as The Railroad Man (1956), A Man of Straw (1957), and, one of his masterpieces, The Facts of Murder (1959)—all “serious” works made in the neorealistic mode. But the worldwide success of Divorce Italian Style convinced him to continue in the same register. After a false start on a project about the follies of the Italian legal system, which was to have been titled “Il palazzaccio” (the ugly palace), from the nickname for the big neobaroque palace that hosts the High Court of Rome, he started working on an ideal “sequel” to Divorce Italian Style, again based in Sicily, again inspired by a statute of the Italian Code, again written with his favorite screenwriter, Luciano Vincenzoni, and two brilliant young writers who formed one of the most famous teams in the history of Italian cinema, Age (Agenore Incrocci) and Furio Scarpelli, and again with Stefania Sandrelli—whom the success of Divorce Italian Style had propelled to international stardom—this time in the central role of the seduced, and the abandoned.
In a time of “impure” Italian cinema—when filmmakers and producers had no problem employing foreign actors to play very Italian characters, like Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina in <>The Leopard, or Broderick Crawford as Augusto in Federico Fellini’s Il bidone, or Anthony Quinn as Zampanò and Richard Basehart as the fool in La strada—producers for a while considered actors like Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, and Jean Gabin for the role of Don Vincenzo Ascalone, the father of the seduced and the head of the family. But Germi insisted on Saro Urzì, a very good character actor, who gives a wonderful performance (for which he shared the Best Actor award at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, with Pacsirta’s Antal Pager).
The film starts during siesta. Everyone in the Ascalone house, in the center of a small Sicilian town, is asleep after a Sunday lunch, except for the beautiful sixteen-year-old Agnese and her elder sister’s fiancé, Peppino, who “seduces” her and makes her pregnant. When her father discovers what has happened, the only solution he can imagine, after having duly beaten his beloved daughter and Peppino, is to make the seduced marry the seducer. At the same time, to cover up the scandal, he finds a new fiancé for Matilde, the elder sister, a baron as poor as a church mouse, who takes advantage of the engagement to have new teeth made with Don Vincenzo’s money. But Peppino refuses to marry Agnese, on the perfectly logical grounds, from his macho point of view, that she is no longer a virgin (“The man has the right to ask; the woman has the duty to refuse.” She didn’t, therefore she is a puttana). To avenge his family’s honor, the don hatches a plan to have Peppino killed by his only son, Antonio, who fails to perform his filial duty, not out of a sense of justice but because he is scared of the consequences. When the police arrive, Peppino understands that he must marry Agnese. But in order to justify this hurried marriage in the eyes of the town, Ascalone must stage a fake elopement of the two “lovers.” When Agnese has to give her assent to the marriage, however, she instead bites the hand of Peppino, revealing that the marriage is not what she wants. General turmoil follows, but Peppino and Agnese finally get married. The film ends at the Ascalone plot of the city graveyard, on a shot of an epitaph reading, “Honor and Family.”
This bitter, pessimistic ending is typical of the commedia all’italiana of those years, the genre created and made popular by such great filmmakers as Mario Monicelli, Luigi Comencini, and Dino Risi, and by films including Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and The Great War (1959) and Risi’s The Easy Life (1962), which dealt with serious issues through black and very critical comedy (illustrated in the tragic ending of The Easy Life). For many critics, however, the ending of Seduced and Abandoned was one too many. There was a sense that Germi had simply gone too far in this second installment of his “baroque trilogy,” in his piling up of twists, turns, and coups de théâtre, and that the tone of his satire veered toward the grotesque and cynical. And a ghastly piece of work it indeed is—a brilliant satire of a society totally devoted to appearances and to minding other people’s business, a dark farce about the cult of gossip and honor.
It is true that Germi doesn’t like his characters, except for maybe Agnese herself—but not in the beginning, not in the moment of the “seduction” that puts the plot in motion and that is at least ambiguous, depicting the girl as a sensuous young animal of dubious virtue. He starts liking her afterward, when a seed of rebellion emerges in her (at a certain point, to underline her rebellion, she speaks about moving to Milan, back then the symbol of modern living in Italy and, more to the point, a place of guaranteed anonymity after a life under the control of town gossip). He certainly doesn’t like his other characters or their culture, which he, a man from the north, with a different set of morals, cannot accept. His dislike is translated, from a visual point of view, into exasperated, expressionistic black and white; a cadenced, rhythmic choreography of people in public spaces that speaks for the collective zeitgeist; a cruel gaze focused on everybody’s ludicrous flaws; a mischievous use of wide angles; a series of “comic reliefs” that break the narrative and set it in motion again, never allowing things to get too serious or for any kind of identification or sympathy. The pace and the editing are frantic, and, as the Latin saying goes, motus in fine velocior: the more you approach the ending of the film, the more situations pile up, in a continuous reversal of fortunes and destinies that is almost violent.
When the film was released, Tullio Kezich, an eminent film critic and playwright, wrote that “it looks like a G. B. Shaw play illustrated by Buñuel,” while Alberto Moravia, then film critic for L’espresso, opined that “Germi leads the caricature and the paradox up to a point of tension, after which it is difficult for him to take the reins of the narrative again.” Forty years later, in front of this beautiful and cruel film, Germi scholar Mario Sesti turned this verdict upside down: “The structure is made perfect by an expressive athleticism, by a wrathful determination, in which the narrative is transformed in an unstoppable flow of which a whole society is the protagonist.”
Irene Bignardi was the film critic for the Italian daily La repubblica for fifteen years and later the director of the Locarno International Film Festival. She is now critic at large for La repubblica and is the author of Memorie estorte a uno smemorato: La vita di Gillo Pontecorvo, Le piccole utopie, and Americani. She teaches the history of cinema at Venice University IUAV.