The Sicily of director Pietro Germi's 1961 black comedy Divorce Italian Style has an impossibly sunny face and a bitter heart of darkness. In this beautiful place, mob rule is strictly enforced, the court of public opinion triumphs over individual morality, the faded aristocracy commands respect while sliding into debauchery, and an oily narcissist cynically turns to honor killing to rid himself of an inconvenient wife.
While deflating Italy's bloated sacred cows, Germi has created a wickedly funny film, its breezy insouciance grounded by a searing intelligence. Divorce Italian Style is as a master class in satire, adopting the perspective of Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), narrator, protagonist, and embodiment of everything wrong in the society he both mocks and manipulates to his own ends.
Known as Fefé to his overbearing family, the baron is a marvel of a character: wary of a culture he sees as clinging to its feudal roots, aware of the expectations that trap him in the ruined Palazzo Cefalù, yet profoundly, intoxicatingly self-involved. His cloying wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), seemingly oblivious to Fefé's overwhelming self-love, is demanding of her distant husband's attention, and unaware that his eye is roving to another part of the household.
Nearing 40, Fefé has become obsessed with his teenage cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), and hatches an intricate plot to murder Rosalia. The twist here is that the baron expects to get caught: He plans to steer his wife into the arms of another man, and then use "crime of honor" as his legal defense. His reasoning is twofold: divorce was illegal at the time, but the status-conscious Fefé realizes that as a cuckold who kills a cheating wife, he would not only receive a shorter prison sentence, but he'd also become a local folk hero.
Although the film is set in the fictitious town of Agramonte, there's a biting veracity to its observations about postwar Sicily. High-contrast black-and-white cinematography gives Divorce Italian Style a timeless air, yet Germi (Seduced and Abandoned) pointedly captures the specificity of an insular society that defiantly clings to communal conventions in a new era of individuality.
With a bravura performance from Mastroianni, who had just become an international movie star courtesy of La Dolce Vita, and an acid-tongued Oscar-winning screenplay, Divorce Italian Style remains relevant nearly a half-century later. The loathsome may sometimes come out on top, Germi asserts, but time wounds all heels.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 25, and 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 27. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].