Divorzio all’italiana

Thomas Jones · Divorce, Italian Style

I wonder if Silvio Berlusconi, for his next coup of reactionary lawmaking, is considering a repeal of the 1971 legalisation of divorce. Before 1971, marriage in Italy really was more or less a case of till death did them part, though not many people resorted to the methods of Marcello Mastroianni’s character in Pietro Germi’s 1961 black comedy, Divorzio all’italiana.

Marcello Mastroianni

Ferdinando Cefalù is a Sicilian aristrocrat in his late thirties who lives with his parents, his wife (Rosalina), his sister and a sexually harassed teenage servant in a crumbling palace in the fictional town of Agramonte, near Catania. At night, Ferdinando creeps (in every sense of the word) from the marital bed to spy on his sleeping teenage cousin from the bathroom window. So far, so Berlusconi. If the movie begins as a fairly nasty misogynist sex comedy, however, with Ferdinando also fantasising about murdering Rosalina in such imaginative ways as stabbing her in the back and bundling her into a vast cauldron in which she’s making soap, it soon turns into something much stranger.

When Rosalina’s old lover, Carmelo Patanè, presumed dead in the war, returns to the town and offers to restore the frescoes in the Cefalù palace, Ferdinando decides to get rid of his wife for real by fixing her up with Carmelo and then shooting them both in a staged crime of passion, so he’ll be free to marry his underage cousin. It’s an insane project, and gets steadily more insane as Ferdinando gets hold of a hi-tech bugging device to eavesdrop on the lovers, at which point I started to wonder – perhaps a little hopefully – if the movie wasn’t somehow a veiled satire on Cold War political paranoia.

Ferdinando thinks his opportunity has come when the entire town, apart from Rosalina and Carmelo, piles into the cinema to watch La dolce vita. No one seems to notice that the film stars their local baron, but that’s probably because they’re all too distracted by Anita Ekberg and her breasts. It’s an extraordinary scene, in which the male gaze is turned in on itself in more ways than one. As the camera scans across the faces of the passively staring audience, the men look like caricatures, gawping personifications of scopophilia – until you compare them with the crowd watching while Fellini filmed Ekberg cavorting in the Trevi Fountain. Then you realise they just look like men. What a sorry lot we are. Here’s hoping Veronica Lario fleeces the prime minister for every centesimo she can get.

The worst of it is that all the fuss about Berlusconi’s disintegrating marriage is keeping actual news off the front pages: for example, that the Senate has just approved a law requiring doctors to report illegal immigrants to the authorities.