1962 / Best Director

Film #584: Divorce Italian Style (1962)

In my review of Woman in the Dunes I noted how the horror genre is one that Oscar rarely honours and the same can be said for comedy. Although the screwball comedies of the 1930s were highly thought of by the academy, as time wore on it appeared that Oscar ignored the genre all together unless your name was Woody Allen. However there is the occasional comedy that pops up now and again such as the next film on our list; Divorce Italian Style which reunites us with regular Fellini contributor Marcello Mastroianni.

In the film Mastroianni portrays impoverished baron Ferdinando who is unhappily married to the rather plain Rosalia and shares his ancestral home with his extended family. One day Ferdinando happens upon his teenage cousin Angela and finds himself drawn to her, whilst he later discovers that she feels the same way. He quickly realises that he needs to get Rosalia out of the way and with divorce banned in Italy he resolves to murder her in some way. After imagining his wife’s death is several amusing fantasy sequences, he decides that the only way he’d receive a light sentence in court is if he claims that his wife’s murder was a crime of passion. To do so he has to find someone who his wife would cheat on him with and, after a brief search, comes upon one of her old lovers; painter Carmelo. Ferdinando leaves his wife and her potential lover on their own together whilst he tapes their conversations however he fails to catch them in the act before they elope together. As he resolves to change his plan, events conspire against him but ultimately he is able to kill his wife and garner a light sentence of three years. I potentially felt that the twist in the tale would be that Angela wouldn’t be waiting for Ferdinando when he returned from prison but this wasn’t the case. Instead director Pietro Germi and his fellow writers wait till the final shot to disprove our protagonist’s theory that life doesn’t necessarily begin at forty.

Having previously enjoyed Mastroianni as both the world-weary journalist in La Dolce Vita and world-weary director in 8 1/2 it was a slight change of pace to see him playing somewhat of a fool. His character of Ferdinando is comparable to the likes of Barry Lyndon and Tom Jones in that they try to justify their actions despite their motives often being despicable. In the case of this film we see Mastroianni’s character plot to murder his wife so he can sleep with his sixteen-year-old cousin but as this is a comedy we’re meant to find him hilarious rather than simply disturbed. Whilst I’d thought that Mastroianni was charming in the aforementioned Fellini films I didn’t think he brought enough of it to make Ferdinando feel either sympathetic or particularly likeable. Oddly, Divorce Italian Style saw Mastroianni earn his first of three Best Actor nominations even though I’ve felt he was much better before and after this. One element of the story I did like however was the fact that the all of Ferdinando’s town were rushing to see La Dolce Vita on its opening night, due to rumours of its lewd nature. The fact that La Dolce Vita shares its lead actor with this film wasn’t referenced however I do feel this might be the earliest example of a meta joke that I’ve ever seen in cinema.

Whilst Mastroianni was unsuccessful in his bid to be crowned Best Actor and Germi didn’t scoop that year’s Best Director prize, Divorce Italian Style did win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Whilst it was witty enough, especially in the scenes in which Ferdinando was listening to the tape recordings of Rosalia and Carmelo together, I didn’t think it was really sharp enough to be award-winning. Similarly I found it odd that Divorce Italian Style garnered a nomination for Germi in the first place as the film never really stood out visually. Whilst I do admit that comedy must be a hard genre to direct I don’t feel that any of Germi’s direction really helped create any humour throughout the film. Even though I did laugh once or twice, I didn’t find the core conceit of Divorce Italian Style particularly humorous and therefore it didn’t work for me on that level. Although I did find an easy watch, there was nothing about Divorce Italian Style that was particularly compelling and ultimately it was more than a little underwhelming. That being said I do feel it influenced a lot of the bawdy relationship comedies that sprung up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in America although I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Next time we end our globe-trotting adventures with a trip to Greece for a film that scooped up that year’s Oscar for Best Original Song.

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