………….If "Satan Never Sleeps" is an unholy disaster with privileged moments, Pietro Germi's contemporaneous "Divorce Italian Style" is the perfect antidote. One of the funniest films ever made, it unwinds with clockwork precision, demanding subsequent viewings to marvel at the intricacy of the script, scalpel like meticulousness of the camera work and editing, and the excellence of the performances - excepting Marcello Mastroianni, who exceeds mere excellence, launching himself into a realm of comic originality where Keaton and Chaplin dwell. Intended initially as a drama by a filmmaker associated with Italian neorealism, "Divorce Italian Style" - a huge international hit in 1962 - burlesques a loophole in Italian law that shows mercy for killings intended to avenge marital dishonor.
Mastroianni, married to a plump, cloying woman with one eyebrow and the whisper of a mustache, wants to kill her so he can marry his teenage first cousin. He plans to find her a lover, catch them in the act, and dispatch her to clean the dreaded imputation of cuckoldry from his family's escutcheon. He plays the role with his nose in the air, drooping eyes, and the walk of an oiled dandy; his deadpan expression is broken only by a twitchy clicking of the teeth, and his hair has a role of its own - alternately slicked back or matted with a net or unruly as a mop or half and half. The ingenious structure involves a flashback so slick you hardly see it coming, as Mastroianni, emerging from a toilet on a train, ruminates on Sicily, introduces characters, and guns the plot, which stays gunned, returning to the train only for the penultimate scene.
The shrewd musical score includes a piano waltz, Donizetti, and the rock 'n' roll sequence from "La Dolce Vita," the recent opening of which is extensively satirized. The comic techniques include fast-forwards, zooms, fantasy murders, interior monologues, and the hero's recurring stumbling upon his sister and her lover, forever jumping out of the dark, straightening their clothes, and protesting their innocence. If early Preston Sturges had collaborated with middle-period Tolstoy, they might have conceived something as fiendishly immoral, but apparently not even Germi (whose next film was the similarly subversive hit, "Seduced and Abandoned") could repeat the inspired lunacy of "Divorce Italian Style." The Criterion print is stunning, blacks and whites that shimmer, and the extras - a documentary, interviews, screen tests - whet the appetite for more Germi, one of the least exported directors of his era.
If you want to see the world of cartoonist Charles Addams put onscreen in all its morbid, Victorian splendor, then I recommend you skip the Addams Family movies and instead see Pietro Germi's "Divorce, Italian Style," which begins a two-week run at Film Forum today. It's a blast from the past, shot in 1961, a time when an Italian movie could come to America, be a box-office hit, nab best actor and best director nominations from the Academy, and take home the Oscar for best screenplay. These days, Italian movies run for a week at Cinema Village and are promptly forgotten.
The dark heart of this black comedy, shot in sumptuous black-and-white, is Marcello Mastroianni giving the greatest impersonation of Gomez Addams I've ever seen. Hair pasted to his skull, his face as blank and bored as a whale's backside, with a cigarette holder jutting from his mouth like a harpoon, he floats through his family mansion like a bored ghost.
Fernando Cefalú (Mastroianni) and his family have fallen on hard times. A hated uncle is living in the west wing of the villa, the frescoes are peeling, and the only thing for him to do in a summer as hot as the one blasting the Sicilian town of Agramonte is to hide inside, do crossword puzzles, and moon over the nubile young flesh of his 16-year-old cousin, Angela. But worst of all, Fernando's wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca) has teeth the size of tombstones, a Frida Kahlo mustache, and one cyclopean eyebrow. The more he despises her, the more she adores him. There's only one answer: She must die.
This being Sicily, where honor killings are given a reduced sentence but divorce is unheard of, Fernando hatches a simple plan: push his wife into an affair, discover the lovers in flagrante delicto, kill his wife in a fit of passion, do three years in prison, and emerge to marry his cousin. Unhappiness makes for great comedy, and "Divorce, Italian Style" is exactly that: a great comedy. Mr. Addams once penned a cartoon of Gomez turning to his wife, Morticia, and cooing, "Are you unhappy, my darling?" Audiences for this film can easily echo her purred answer, "Oh, yes. Completely."
Other film connections:
Marriage Italian-Style (Italian: Matrimonio all'italiana), 1964: Marcello Mastroianni gets tricked into marrying his mistress, Sopha Loren. (Dir. Vittorio de Sica)