One doesn’t usually expect a film about infidelity, divorce and murder to be a comedy but that’s one reason Divorzio all’italiana (English title: Divorce, Italian Style, 1961) directed by Pietro Germi, became an unexpected international hit. A caustic satire about the Italian male – or more specifically, Sicily’s male dominated culture – the film also poked fun at Italy’s hypocritical judicial system which can forgive crimes of passion but not legally recognize divorce as a solution for failed marriages. Another factor in the movie’s success was Marcello Mastroianni’s beautifully rendered portrayal of the preening, self-absorbed protagonist, a performance which not only won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the first time in Academy Award history that the lead in a foreign language film received that honor) but still ranks as one of the actor’s key films, following closely on the heels of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Antonioni’s La Notte (1961).
Initially Pietro Germi intended to direct Divorce, Italian Style as a serious drama but soon admitted, “the deeper we got into the subject, though, we simply couldn’t ignore the grotesquely comic aspects to the so-called crime of honor.” (from Marcello Mastroianni: His Life and Art by Donald Dewey). Indeed, it would be difficult to take the plot seriously: The Baron Ferdinando Cefalu (Mastroianni), becomes infatuated with his sixteen-year-old cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli) and vows to marry her but there’s an obstacle – his wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca). Since the Vatican doesn’t condone divorce, Ferdinando comes up with an alternate plan of action – manipulate his wife into an affair with her former admirer, Carmelo (Leopoldo Trieste), catch them in a compromising situation and kill her on the spot – reasoning that a crime of passion killing will only earn him a light prison sentence.
It is interesting to note that Mastroianni was not a shoo-in for the role of Ferdinando, despite his highly regarded reputation among Italian directors at that time. According to the actor in Marcello Mastroianni: The Fun of Cinema by Matilde Hochkofler), “Germi’s image of me as an actor was strictly limited to my image in La Dolce Vita and perhaps he also felt I belonged to the same social class. He was a reserved man, almost rude, a misanthrope who seemed almost to despise anyone who had anything to do with the frivolous world of cinema…When for various reasons, a long list of actors turned down the offer of the film, and in addition, according to the usual laws of cinema, they needed a big-name actor, a box-office success, he followed up a suggestion of one of the film’s production organizers who had mentioned my name. I brought him some photographs, some images that had been produced while I was making Phantoms of Rome. I had my hair curled, then straightened, moustaches applied, and so on. In other words, I did the kind of audition you do when you’re first starting out in cinema. When he had seen the photographs, and the audition, he changed his mind and I went ahead with the film…”
In creating his character, Mastroianni employed certain mannerisms and gestures from his own observation of Sicilian men as well as copying personal tics from those around him like Germi who often made an odd sucking/clicking sound with his mouth due to gum problems. In terms of Ferdinando’s sometimes rigid posture and movements, Mastroianni “had in mind [Mario] Monicelli’s instructions to Tiberio Murgia from The Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), when he used to say, ‘Be haughty, Murgia, be haughty.”
While Mastroianni was intensely focused on his performance, his co-star Daniela Rocca was having great difficulty playing her part. Rumored to be having a secret affair with Germi at the time of shooting, Rocca would often show signs of emotional duress on the set. According to Rocca’s co-star Stefania Sandrelli (in Matilde Hochkofler’s biography of Marcello),”She had won all these beauty contests and was being compared to Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. It was very important for her to be beautiful and admired, and she would go into hysterics whenever she had to put on her wig and the other things that made her ugly.”
The seriousness of Rocca’s condition became apparent one day while filming a scene in which the baron’s family is having dinner. Mastroianni recalled, “Suddenly, without my having said or done anything and without any warning from her, suddenly she gives me a whack in the face that almost took my head off. I was stunned. Then, just as I was getting my bile back up and was about to say, “You idiot! What the hell’s wrong with you?,” I saw something in her face that made me stop. From that moment on, I don’t think I or anyone else in the troupe could think of her as just another working colleague.” A few days after this incident, Rocca slashed her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt. Luckily, she recovered and eventually completed the film though she would retire from the screen in 1967.
Most critics were unanimous in their praise of Divorce, Italian Style during its initial release and singled out Mastroianni, in particular. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote “Not since Charlie Chaplin’s beguiling Verdoux have we seen a deliberate wife killer so elegant and suave, so condescending in his boredom, so thoroughly and pathetically enmeshed in the suffocating toils of a woman as Mr. Mastroianni is here. His eyelids droop with a haughtiness and ennui that are only dispelled when he looks with a gaze of lecherous longing at his teenage cousin.”
Giancarlo Giannini, the star of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (1974) and other films for the director, once admitted that he modeled many of his Sicilian characters on Mastroianni’s performance in Divorce, Italian Style.
In addition to Mastroianni’s Best Actor Oscar nomination for Germi’s film, he also won the Best Foreign Actor award in England (the BAFTA film award) and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor in a musical/comedy. Divorce, Italian Style also received two additional Oscar nominations for Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay (by Ennio De Concini, Alfredo Giannetti and Pietro Germi); it won in the latter category.
Germi began his career as a screenwriter and occasional actor in 1939 but didn’t move into the director’s chair until 1946 with his debut feature Il Testimone. Most of his early work focused on social issues in his country and was heavily influenced by the Neorealism movement such as Il Ferroviere aka The Railroad Man (1956) in which Germi also had the starring role in a drama about the disintegration of a working class family. Most film critics consider his peak years as a director from 1961, when he filmed Divorce, Italian Style, to 1966 when he made The Birds, the Bees and the Italians, a trio of comic tales set in Treviso, Italy. In between, he made Seduced and Abandoned (1964), which some believe is his greatest work, and he was always a favorite at the Cannes Film Festival. He was nominated for the Palme d’Or six times, winning the award for The Birds, the Bees and the Italians, a honor he shared with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman.
Divorce, Italian Style was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection in April 2005 and included the extra feature, The Man with the Cigar in His Mouth (1997), a documentary on the film career of Pietro Germi by film critic Mario Sesti. It seems inevitable that Criterion will eventually release the film on Blu-ray since Germi is now considered one of Italy’s finest directors of post-war cinema.
*This is an expanded and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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