Judge Dan Mancini fears this Pietro Germi masterpiece may someday be reimagined by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay as Trial Separation American Style.
A delightfully daring plan to give marriage a surprise ending!
Pietro Germi is viewed critically as a second-tier director, a maker of solid if less-than-brilliant entertainments in a wide variety of genres. His career stretches back into the postwar heyday of Italian neorealism, but it's his later work in satirical comedies that warrant a reassessment of his place in cinema. No film exemplifies the quality of his work in this genre than his most financially and critically successful, Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana), which is now available on DVD in a sparkling release from The Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
The film tells the farcical tale of Sicilian aristocrat Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni, 8 1/2). He's desperate to marry his gorgeous teenage cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli, The Last Kiss), but is stuck with Rosalia (Daniela Rocca, Conquered City), a clinging wife who grates on him. Italy's legal ban on divorce forces him to design an elaborate scheme whereby he'll dupe Rosalia into infidelity with a former lover, Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste, I Vitelloni), in order to justify murdering her. In the process, he'll defend his own honor, thereby winning the respect of his fellow townsmen, as well as the piece of tail, er, woman of his dreams.
Divorce Italian Style's wicked sense of humor is exemplified in Ferdinando's choice of time to murder his wife. After days of carefully planning his crime, he sneaks away from an exhibition of Fellini's La Dolce Vita to do the dirty deed, confident he won't be found out because all the town's men are entranced by Anita Ekberg's lascivious dance. The joke is a wry cinematic wink that also underscores, like nearly every detail of film, the chauvinism at the center of Sicilian society. This is a world in which female sexuality is seen as a threat to the social fabric, while male sexuality is given free reign so long as it doesn't bruise the ego of another man. This mentality is codified in laws that forgive the most abhorrent male behavior as inevitable, and demand absolute sexual restraint on the part of women.
One of the picture's ongoing gags is Cefalù interrupting his sister and her fiancé tucked in some nook of the family estate, stealing kisses and who knows what else. Ferdinando tortures them by steadfastly putting off any discussion of a wedding date, but also expects his sister to remain virginal. One assumes he'd find no offense in his would-be brother-in-law finding sexual release in the arms of a prostitute, but his sister is off limits until after a wedding. The comedy throughout the film is similarly cruel and misogynistic. Ferdinando daydreams vividly of pushing Rosalia into a cauldron of boiling lye, of shooting her, stabbing her, sinking her in quicksand, and blasting her in a rocket into outer space. Perhaps the most delicate piece of black comedy, though, is when Angela's father discovers a diary entry in which she discusses her infatuation with a mystery lover (Ferdinando). He beats the 16-year-old girl, then calls for a midwife to confirm she's still a virgin. The scene would be horrifying, except Germi and his actors make the family uproar comic in the anarchic style of the Marx Brothers. Ferdinando and his father almost come to blows with Angela's old man as they try to calm the situation, and the family's women scramble around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Germi walks a fine line. Even slightly off in tone, the comedy might have made light of women's precarious position in traditional Sicilian society. But Divorce Italian Style's tone is so on the money the dark comedy induces laughter even as it perfectly exposes the ridiculous sexual double standards that govern the characters' lives. It should come as no shock that Marcello Mastroianni carries the burden of delivering this perfect sense of tone. His slicked-back hair, hooded eyes, and unconscious tongue clucking give Ferdinando Cefalù an insouciant air that exemplifies the wasted, morally bankrupt, and cash-strapped Italian aristocracy in the twentieth century. His decadence and unapologetic self-centeredness are the heart of the film's comic tone. The other actors do a fine job as his satellites. Their straight performances, absent Mastroianni, would leave the film a tragic drama. He alone transforms it into comedy, and that's what makes the tone so spot-on. Mastroianni's performance, with its reliance on mannerisms and facial expressions, is almost broad caricature, except there's a complexity in the way Cefalù sees himself as a put-upon husband, and how we, the audience, perceive his self-image as completely absurd. He is, after all, a murderous bastard. That he sees himself as the victim makes him both a comic boob and rather frightening. It also enables Germi to deliver a finale that is relentlessly cynical, entirely divorced from a Hollywood ending of the early 1960s (or today, for that matter), and deliciously satisfying to the viewer.
The Criterion Collection's release of Divorce Italian Style is a two-disc set with the feature on Disc One, a smattering of quality supplements on Disc Two, and a 28-page insert booklet with three informative essays about Germi and his film.
Starting with the original negative, Criterion has performed a marvelous digital restoration on the picture. The black-and-white image is sharp and detailed. Grain is minimal, and only minor instances of damage remain. There's one scene in which the negative suffered a splotch of damage near the bottom of the frame during the shoot, and another in which there was a hair in the gate. Both are noticeable flaws, though neither is particularly distracting. Reel-change markers have been removed, and scene transitions and dissolves are mostly smooth. The picture's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is retained, and the transfer is enhanced for widescreen displays. It's a gorgeous visual presentation of the film.
The movie's original Italian mono audio has also been restored. It's presented in a single-channel mix, and is placed in surround systems' center speaker. The track has the thin quality typical of pictures made in Italy during that era, where sound was almost never recorded on set or location. Though the source is limited, the track is never shrill or distorted, and dialogue is balanced and clear. Optional English subtitles are provided, and are active as the default.
Disc Two begins with The Man with a Cigar in His Mouth, a 1997 documentary by critic/filmmaker Mario Sesti. It collects interviews with Germi friends and collaborators including screenwriters Furio Scarpelli, Tullio Pinelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leo Benvenuti; production manager Mario Silvestri; press agent Enrico Lucherini; actors Carlo Verdone, Aldo Puglisi, Stefania Sandrelli, and Claudia Cardinale; directors Mario Monicelli and Damiani Damiani; and composer Carlo Rustichelli. Not surprisingly, the interviews focus on Germi's manner in working with screenwriters, actors, and other members of his crews. The recurrent theme is the director's ability to draw the best out of his collaborators. The piece runs 38 minutes and is indexed into six chapters. The presentation is full screen, and audio and video are basically camcorder quality. It may not be glossy, but it's full of substance. There is also a brief text-based biography of Sesti.
Like the previous documentary, the 30-minute Delighting in Contrasts is a collection of interviews. This time we hear from Sandrelli, her fellow actor Lando Buzzanca (who played Matroianni's would-be brother-in-law), and Sesti. Criterion captured the interviews specifically for this release, so the comments are focused on Divorce Italian Style. The piece cuts between the three interviewees, the actors relating production anecdotes while Sesti offers a critical framework for the film. Video quality is excellent, with the interviews, scenes from the film, and still photos presented in a variety of aspect ratios from 1.78:1, to 1.85:1, to full frame.
Ported over from an Italian DVD release of Divorce Italian Style is a seven-minute interview with screenwriter Ennio De Concini. He talks mostly about his role in transforming the screenplay from drama to farce.
Finally, Disc Two houses screen tests for Sandrelli and Daniela Rocca. Both are approximately four minutes long, and surprisingly well preserved. Shot on black-and-white stock, they're framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced.
The insert booklet contains a great, newly-written essay about the movie by Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation, as well as essays by Andrew Sarris and Martin Scorsese, written for a 1999 retrospective on the director's career by the New York Film Festival. It also contains the usual cast and crew information, as well as technical details of the film's restoration for release on DVD.
Divorce Italian Style is satire with teeth, a brilliant piece of black comedy, and the pinnacle of Pietro Germi's career as a filmmaker. It deserves a spot on your DVD shelf.
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