Divorce Italian Style (1961, Pietro Germi)
Personally, I never thought Preston Sturges’ classic Unfaithfully Yours quite lived up to its reputation, but let’s briefly give it this: the reason it’s funny that Rex Harrison fantasizes about killing his wife is that he doesn’t actually kill her — we don’t know that he won’t early on, which may provide some vague tension, but we trust given the kind of movie we’re watching that he wouldn’t go that far. Murderous rage isn’t just the crux of a lot of black comedy, it’s an identifiable — and hopefully very occasional — aspect of human nature. Seeing it illustrated, as it is in both Unfaithfully and in the even broader, even more chauvinistic farce Divorce Italian Style, is a riot because it underlines the absurdity of the thought.
But in this movie, a comedy sensation in Italy and the world over at the time of its release, faithful and “naive” wife Daniela Rocca gets slaughtered, jolly, with a gun at the climax after a couple of hours of pampered male whining over what a dullard she is. Not even a malicious or bad person — which wouldn’t excuse the mindset but would at least make some sort of thematic sense — but just a boring one, not so nubile and freewheeling as the nymphets of midlife-crisis dreams. There is then the suggestion of a bit of tiresome irony — that the teenager inspiring such behavior in fawning, oblivious Ferdinando (Marcello Mastroianni, who’s admittedly very funny, a master class in macho deadpan and comic timing) will turn out after he’s served his time to be a nun or something. Pietro Germi one-ups even this, which wouldn’t be much of a twist but would be something — the twist instead is that the two of them get married and go boating, and either Lolita is already cheating on him with a seaman or they’re all engaging in blissful group sex. Either way, the only tidbit of human decency we’re provided is a lonely shot of murdered Rosalita’s tombstone becoming overgrown with neglect.
Let’s back up. As black comedies with actual murder in them go, Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably at the top of the heap. That Divorce Italian Style isn’t nearly as witty would be reason enough to drop the comparison. It’s a fairly simplistic farce, though it was apparently conceived as a thriller and there are sparse remnants of that in the presence of poison pen letters, heart attacks resulting from mislabeled envelopes, and especially a lot of business with a tape recorder and microphone. But beyond that, D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts knows he’s an empathy-free asshole. You can read Ferdiando’s perception of everything around him strictly as it relates to his smugly bulging erection as satire, but that sets the bar for satire rather low.
It seems to me that if we’re meant to laugh with Ferdinando when he thinks about killing his wife, we’re meant to laugh when — after he essentially coaxes her into adultery and she runs away with her lover — she falls pathetically screaming to his fake crime-of-passion gunshot. That’s not black comedy, that’s cruel; the victims in Kind Hearts weren’t deserving of their fates, but we also weren’t meant to fall in with D’Ascoyne because of our common humanity. I’m torn between whether it bothers me more that we’re meant to view Ferdinando as a privileged dickbrain or that we’re meant to relate to him; both are true, and both are insulting. Killing someone because they have an annoying laugh isn’t funny, it’s sociopathic. It’s The Telltale Heart played as a xeroxed Playboy comic passed around among dirty hands at a stag party.]
Not all of this is vile — a long sequence about the scandal that erupted when La Dolce Vita opened is a treat for cinephiles, and the frantic swoops and cutaways are quite engaging — but most of it is. The tone is set early on when Ferdinando gazes longingly out his bathroom window at a sleeping, half-dressed teenager next door. This film got Pietro Germi up for the Best Director Oscar, and nabbed the Original Screenplay award on top of a nomination for Mastroianni. Sometimes I wish I was around in the ’60s. Sometimes I don’t.