Italian satire returns with ‘Divorce Italian Style’
Sophia Michetti | Tuesday, November 9, 2021
As an Italian minor who will be studying abroad in Rome next semester, I couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity to go to the Browning Cinema’s screening of “Divorce Italian Style” presented by the Center for Italian Studies. Directed by Pietro Germi, “Divorce Italian Style” tells the story of Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), a Sicilian aristocrat who has been married to his wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca) for twelve years. While Ferdinando (nicknamed Fefé) has the house, the money (that hasn’t been gambled away by his father) and the wife a Sicilian nobleman should have, he still finds himself infatuated with Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), his 16-year-old cousin living in the opposite wing of the family palace. Since divorce was outlawed during the 1961 release of the film, Fefé comes up with a plan to marry Angela that fits the laws of time and makes “Divorce Italian Style” a satire: push Rosalia into having an affair with another man, kill her in a crime of passion and serve minimal time in jail on the precept of defending his honor to emerge a free man.
The aesthetic of the film was quite beautiful to watch. That sounds sappy, but watching a black and white film in its original format — not digitally — makes you appreciate how moviegoers would have experienced film back when this movie came out sixty years ago. Even though the film dealt with a murder plot and a man unhappy in his life, the music was so buoyant and lighthearted that any audience member can’t help but feel a sense of joy while taking in the setting. Part of what makes this movie a satire is that the acting of every character is so exaggerated that a lot of the comedic elements come from seeing them dig so deeply into their characters’ personalities. Fefé is constantly confused when his plans go wrong, Rosalia is extremely obsessed with her husband and even Fefé’s father can’t help but have an exaggerated possessiveness over being the patriarch of his family, even though he lost most of his family’s money.
So here’s the question: would this film still be considered a comedy today? I think the answer to that is kind of. “Divorce Italian Style” is definitely a satire. Every outlandish attempt Fefé makes to catch his wife in an affair so he can kill her goes through so many random obstacles that the film is clearly commenting on how hard it was for someone to feel like they were free to change their mind in Italy’s political climate at the time. “Divorce Italian Style” even includes a screening of another important satirical film at the time, Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” to show how intrigued Italians were by these films that use comedy to make serious commentary on their own society.
Still, I also think there is an analysis on how men view women, especially as wives. In the film, women are either portrayed as needy or as sexual objects whose purpose is to please men. In Fefé’s case, Angela is the light of his life, even though he barely talked to her before their relationship began, and Rosalia is depicted as being obsessed with her husband and oblivious to his contempt for her. For example, Fefé’s extreme disdain for her is shown in the ludicrous ways he dreams of her dying, including being stuck in quicksand and shot up into space in a rocket. Fefé may not have been able to have freedom under Italy’s laws in 1961, but he certainly isn’t portrayed as some suffering hero either.
Winning the 1963 Oscar for Best Screenplay, “Divorce Italian Style” is an interesting case study on how Italians used satire to create social commentary on their culture and government. Divorce wasn’t legal in Italy until 1970, and it wasn’t fully confirmed until 1974 after a referendum perpetuated by the Church. Therefore, Germi’s film came at a time when it would speak to the Italian people’s frustrations with the society they lived in. If there’s anything 20th century Italian film can teach us, it’s that sometimes the best way to spark change is to poke fun at the problems.