Published on February 17th, 2014 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut: Divorce Italian Style
On a train in Italy, a man peers over his newspaper out the window. Is he looking for something? He covertly scans the room. Is he hiding? The answer to both of these questions is, in a way, yes; yes, he is looking for something, albeit something he will never find. And yes, he is hiding, though he does so in plain sight.
His name is Ferdinando and the film he occupies is Divorce Italian Style, Pietro Germi’s groundbreaking satire of Italian society and the chauvinism that lies at the heart of it. The film flashes back from its opening on the train to about a year earlier, in which Ferdinando is married and content, living with his immediate family in a charmingly rustic townhouse. One day, he begins to notice his young cousin, the beautiful Rosalia, and he gets all hot and bothered. He soon discovers that she feels the same. His wife seems like nothing more than a clingy schoolgirl, insufferably loyal and needy. Given that divorce is illegal, he doesn’t seem to have a leg to stand on. But after hearing of a homicidal wife who’s given a severe prison sentence for killing her husband and his lover, Ferdinando hatches a plan so ludicrous and desperate, it just might work.
To him, the premise is simple. He must lure his wife into committing adultery. Then, in the heat of the moment, he will kill her and her lover, simply defending his honour as a man and an Italian. This is where the Germi’s biting satire really kicks in. As Ferdinando abuses the double standard of adultery set before him, the film dives deep into this male-domineering society and takes a stab at traditional values and dogmatic thinking.
Pietro Germi knows exactly what he wants and he executes it all to perfection. The film keeps a delicate balance of sardonic wit and gripping characters. Just as you relate to the characters’ angst and laugh at the film’s hyperbolic charm, at some points in the film, your heart really breaks at what a truly messed up place this Small Town, Italy can really be. We see Rosalia beaten by her father upon reading the salacious thoughts in her diary and we want to reach out to her and tell her that it’s going to be okay. Everything the film sets up has a payoff, though it’s not always one that goes for direct laughs. Instead, it takes aim at creating a stark, realistic portrait of a society so hell-bent on making others pay for the same sins that they themselves commit.
But only a brilliant mind like Germi would be able to do so by portraying a man so hopelessly conceited. Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2) is brilliant as Ferdinando. You can tell he’s really having fun with the role with every devilish smirk he makes. His character is an every man who thinks he’s smarter than the rest of the world. It seems like there are too many of those characters in the town we are shown. As these men gather around in the town square, gossiping and judging each other, the women watch from a distance and wonder why they are considered the ones who need supervision.
It’s the screenplay that really distinguishes this film from others like it. I haven’t seen actors sink into such snappy dialogue in a while. The pace is quick and clever, allowing the humour and charm to jump out from places you didn’t know existed. But at the same time, the script is a very grounded piece of writing, keeping a meticulous focus on the issue at hand and how serious it is. It’s interesting to note that such a bold and provocative script won the Oscar in 1962. I guess times have changed.
Divorce Italian Style is a comedy that truly doesn’t hold back. It’s almost as if Germi had never seen one before. It has that unique charm that you’d expect to see in a Wes Anderson movie, but with a jarring and sometimes unexpectedly brutal look at a society completely worn out. Like any good satire, it takes things to the extreme, but questions it all and leaves you with the feeling that Ferdinando is just as empty and shallow as the rest of the men that exert such hypocrisy, taking advantage of the double standards passed down to them. The film isn’t too subtle, but it doesn’t get overzealous or preachy either. It just does what a good satire sets out to do. It exposes those hiding in plain sight.