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Divorce Italian Style: The Criterion Collection

In this 1962 satire on sex, murder, and marital fidelity, the incomparable Marcello Mastroianni plays Ferdinando 'Fefé' Cefalú, a down-on-the-heels Sicilian baron bored with his life and irritated by his clinging, syrupy wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca). Sharing a wing of what was once his family's estate with his wife, mother, father, and a servant, idle due to his class, and self-satisfied by nature, Fefé channels his suffocating dissatisfaction into a hopeless love for his nubile young cousin, Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). But in the very Catholic Italy of 40 years ago, divorce is illegal, so Fefé concocts a plan — he will create a situation in which is wife will cuckold him and then kill her in a crime of passion, getting a light sentence because, after all, he was only defending his familial honor. Director Pietro Germi was mainly known for dramatic films when he made Divorzio all'italiana in 1962 — this comedy was a departure, and one that his producers were unsure he could pull off. But he had a perfect leading man in Mastroianni, an actor who enjoyed spoofing his on-screen persona as a suave sophisticate — he'd made La Dolce Vita just the year before, and Germi presents a very funny sequence in Divorce with the town's citizens all piling into their tiny movie theater to ogle Anita Ekberg in Fellini's film as a distracted Mastroianni slips out the door on his way to execute his plan. As Fefé, Mastroianni is surprisingly sympathetic despite his oily ways and his murderous intentions. Rosalia is, indeed, annoying, and in the palpable Sicilian summer heat her clinging is almost unbearable to watch — in one scene, Fefé escapes to his darkened study to do a crossword puzzle and enjoy the cool of an electric fan, but Rosalia follows him with a tray of hot coffee, turning the fan off as she presses her bosom and the oversweetened coffee on him, begging him to give her sips from his cup. With his heavy-lidded eyes, slicked-back hair, and a cigarette holder clamped between his teeth, the scheming Fefé should be repellent to us, but because of Mastroianni's distinctive take on the character — and Germi's deft direction — the middle-aged Lothario is more to be pitied than reviled, even as he plots his wife's demise. Germi's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, plus his fearless ridiculing of the Italian upper class and of his culture's sexist hypocrisy, combine with a brilliant comic/serious tone to create a seminal black comedy that influenced countless films that came after. All the way to its brutally ironic conclusion, Divorce Italian Style is an inventive, peerless classic.

*          *          *

The Criterion Collection's two-disc special edition of Divorce Italian Style presents a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer from the original 35mm negative, and it's beautiful. Very clean, very contrasty, the image quality is superb, showcasing Leonida Barboni's delicious black-and-white camerawork. The remastered Dolby Digital monaural audio is also very clean and clear, and Carlo Rustichelli's music here is one of the '60s most underrated soundtracks. The extras are surprisingly sparse for a Criterion release — no commentary track, and just a small handful of supplements on Disc Two. There's a 1997 documentary on Germi by critic Mario Sesti, "The Man with the Cigar in His Mouth" (39 min.), consisting of static, soundbite interviews with friends and collaborators of the director; another, better anecdotal feature titled "A Study in Contrasts" offers new interviews recorded for Criterion with Sesti, actor Buzzanca, and the still-stunning Stefania Sandrelli. Also here is an interesting (but very short at just five minutes) interview with screenwriter Ennio de Concini, who talks about the script's origins as a serious novel and his originally conceived, even darker ending; and screen tests for Sandrelli and Rocca. The Dual-DVD keep-case includes a 28-page booklet with informative essays by Martin Scorsese, Andrew Sarris, and critic Stuart Klawans.
—Dawn Taylor



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