I never thought I’d get so fed up with hearing the name “Fefe.” But it’s true. There’s a first time for everything. In fact, Fefe is the name of our main character played so magnificently by Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni. In my very narrow view, he still very much epitomizes Italian cinema for me.
As for the film, a Sicilian Baron Ferdinando finds himself in rather an unfortunate conundrum — at least from his point of view. He relates through voice-over his family dynamic, with his parents, his soon to be engaged sister, his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), and of course his beautiful ingenue cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). Aside from not being particularly enthralled with married life, the bigger problem is that Ferdinando is infatuated with Angela. He can’t take his eyes off her.
For those who are paying attention this comedy from director Pietro Germi, at times feels strikingly similar to the screwball comedies of Classic Hollywood where men such as Preston Sturges made light work of society by skirting censorship and building a barrage of gags almost to the point of being incomprehensible. But they might also conjure up comparisons with the darkly funny Ealing comedies out of England. And it’s true that films like Divorce Italian Style also carry a very particular name, “Commedia all’italiana” or comedy in the Italian way.
What becomes evident in a film such as Divorce Italian Style is the pointed attack on Italian social mores — the very framework that the culture is built on — and all involved are poking fun. Morality, class distinction, even the institution of marriage, are all dissected satirically as our protagonist goes through his life dreaming of knocking his wife off and living happily ever after with Angela — a girl that shares his affection — if only society didn’t say otherwise (she gets whisked to a life in a convent to maintain her purity). Not to be deterred, the Baron attempts to hitch his wife up with a suitable suitor and as the shameful scandal finally breaks over his wife, he secretly jumps for joy. He’s getting a step closer to what he wants.
Meanwhile, the men about town all ogle at every girl that happens to walk by. Fefe’s old man is constantly harassing the maid, and more than once he walks in on his sister and her beau making out passionately. There’s even a theatrical screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (also starring Mastroianni) which literally seems to break any form of censorship in the town. The crowds flock to it joyously — men and women alike — because they want to see the lavish romance projected up onto the screen.
Mastroianni is not surprisingly a long way off from his debonair lovers taken the likes of La Dolce Vita, La Notte or 8 and 1/2. He goes through the film with a certain comedic despondency. He’s hardly a real figure. Comic and dismal with overblown ideas of how to make his existence invariably better. It’s quite a display because while it’s easy to laugh it’s also rather pitiful.
So Divorce Italian Style is perhaps even more audacious than the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Because it gives the plotting Fefe the “happy” ending he was hoping for. It actually gives it to him, but the comic (or sad) thing, in the end, is that his girl is already playing footsies with another man. You see if we look at what is going on here, he’s never going to find contentment. The ultimate irony, if there was a sequel, is that it would probably show Fefe actually trying to kill his wife because she’s cheating on him. Then it wouldn’t be so funny.
Yes, the strict societal pressures put on the members of this Sicilian community undoubtedly deserve to be questioned. There is so much obvious hypocrisy bubbling up through the layers of society and it makes for provocative comedy. But also there’s something to be said for living life under some sort of moral framework. Otherwise, life is purely about our pleasures, what makes us feel good, what our desires are and oftentimes those fail to regard what is beneficial for others. Needless to say, I’m partial to “Marriage,” not “Divorce” Italian Style — or any other way for that matter. However, I won’t even try to tackle the whole marrying your cousin thing. This is a comedy after all and Stefania Sandrelli is quite pretty. I don’t blame “Fefe” too much. He’s only human.