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Divorce - Italian Style.

Pietro Germi's 1962 Divorce - Italian Style (b&w; in Italian with subtitles; 104 minutes; Hen's Tooth Video) stars Marcello Mastroianni and takes place in a Sicilian town, "Agramonte," south of Catania. Baron Ferdinando (Pepe) Cefala, nearing 40 and married for fourteen years to a cloying wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), falls in love - truly, deeply, madly - with his ravishing cousin Angela (Stephania Sandrelli). She's only 16; yet her love for him is as passionate as his for her. What can he do? Get a legal divorce? Impossible. An annulment? Much too expensive. Pepe is compelled to murder his wife. Of course he wishes to make it "justifiable homicide," so his sentence will be lenient and he won't be too old for his cousin when he gets out of prison. "Justifiable" means only one thing: an unfaithful Rosalia. Pepe must find her a lover and he must also generate whispers and rumors, impertinences and knowing squints, as well as send himself letters with drawings of antlers on them. Well Pepe knows that before him looms the Cross of Cuckoldom. But to what lengths will a man nearly 40 not go when at last he finds love in the person of a willing girl twenty years younger than he?

Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste), an old suitor of Rosalia's, turns up. The perfect pigeon! Rosalia proves only too eager. She consents to an assignation. Pepe prepares to go out that night and to come back home and find his wife in flagrante and to shoot her to death with a pistol he cunningly hides, all the while narrating to himself the eloquent and persuasive speech his advocate will make in court. Pausing hardly at all to admire his amazing subtlety, Pepe in one of my favorite scenes goes out to the showing, long-awaited in Agramonte, of Fellini's La Dolce Vita - from which he returns prematurely to find not the essential expected scene of his guilty wife in Carmelo's embrace but that the lovers have fled. From here on, Divorce - Italian Style goes from low to high comedy. In addition to having to suffer the tortures (nowhere more developed than in Sicily, as all the world knows) of male dishonor, Pepe, now with an embarrassment of legal "justifications," doesn't know where his wife is. As in his family's ears the piercing cries of "Shame!" resound, and as his father is denounced for corrupt and ignoble genes, and as his sister's engagement is broken off by her fiance, and as even the pretty young serving girl is taken away by her family, so Pepe shuts himself up in his room affecting the sulky majesty of a clumsy obsolete cannon, loaded and charged and awaiting the match: the knowledge of where his wife is. When at last struck unexpectedly, this match makes for an explosion as comic as any Rossini prepared. And it gives off an exquisite echo in the movie's coda.

Mastroianni's character is full of energy, in contrast to the demoralized hero of La Dolce Vita. His performance in Divorce - Italian Style prepares for his Casanova, in 1981, in Ettore Scola's La Nuit de Varennes, his most nuanced role to date. In Germi's movie, Mastroianni is vain and tortured, pompous and unbelievably moving. Only Gassman could have given us as grand a performance as this. If Divorce - Italian Style isn't the greatest comedy about matrimonial homicide ever filmed, it'll have to do until Mike Leigh (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet) has a go at the theme.

P.S. On the same subject, Luis Bunuel's Tristana has also just (at last!) been released. And not to be overlooked, Kon Ichikawa's Odd Obsession and, from these shores, Unfaithfully Yours by Preston Sturges.
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Author:Sonnenberg, Ben
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Video Recording Review
Date:Jul 13, 1992
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