‘Divorce Italian Style’ or — The Tactics of Tactility?

Have you ever wanted to kill your significant other? I don’t just mean slipping some poison into their cocoa and watching them peacefully pass away in their sleep but actually shooting them in the face, stabbing them in the neck, drowning them in quicksand or firing them into space. You know, really taking years of pent-up rage out on them because they make every fiber in your being twitch with seething hatred.

This is the situation the impoverished Baron Ferdinando Cefalù finds himself in as there is nothing he wants more in the world than to murder his hideously overbearing wife, Rosalia. He dreams about it constantly, fantasises about how to do it and now that he has fallen for his cousin by marriage, the beautiful Angela, the imperative to do away with Rosalia feels as desperate as ever. Why does passion have to be so passionate?!

But how should he do it and, most importantly, can he get away with it? It’s obvious he won’t be able to cheat the law but hang on; there was that story recently about the local woman who killed her husband out of jealousy after catching him in fragrante delicto with his lover and got off with a light sentence because it was seen as a crime of passion. So that could be Ferdinando’s solution! To arrange it so it looks as though his wife is having an affair. The only problem is who the hell would want to sleep with his wife?!

‘Divorce Italian Style’ (1961) is an absolutely fantastic Italian comedy and a film much like Sacha Guitry’s ‘La Poison’ (1951) where we are shocked to discover our protagonist desires to commit murder only to be then even more shocked to realise we not only want them to carry it out but to succeed and get away with it too. The film achieves this by recognising a simple and inescapable fact — that we all get on each other’s nerves.

It also works by making Rosalia as gratingly annoying as humanly possible: she’s needy and possessive, constantly pawing at her husband demanding his attention and affection. Like a child over stimulated from too much tickling Ferdinando flinches at her every touch, his skin bristling at her mere cloying presence. And when she’s not physically molesting him she’s full of profound insights on life. Like the time she admits to a strange dissatisfaction deep inside when she realises she only likes grapes when they don’t have any and when they do have grapes she feels like eating pears (the line when she continues after being interrupted “Anyway, where was I?” because she has much more to say on the matter might be my favourite line in the film).

Yet with her mono-brow and moustache I found myself feeling sorry for poor Rosalia. After all, she’s not THAT bad… is she?

Although be careful not to feel too sorry for Rosalia because there’s a chance there might be more going on with her than initially appears. And that goes for most of the people in ‘Divorce Italian Style’ as everyone seems to have an ulterior motive or hidden side to them. Even Ferdinando himself is constantly checking himself out in mirrors, almost as though he is reassuring himself of his own twitchy existence, and are there aspects of Rosalia that he is refusing to see mirrored in himself (is this why she also has a moustache?)?

This doubling, along with Ferdinando’s lustful obsession with the much younger Angela, means Ferdinando shares some common ground with ‘Lolita’s Humbert Humbert: both men are infatuated to the point of delusion by a much younger woman; they have a tendency towards self-aggrandisement and self-importance (Ferdinando still takes great pride in his family’s aristocratic title even though their entire estate is practically destitute) and both manipulate events from their dens of illusionary superiority.

Marcello Mastroianni does a fantastic job of making the potentially deeply unlikable Ferdinando sympathetic, effortlessly switching from contrived suave to brow-beaten puppy to petulantly pathetic self-loathing with ease although it might be Daniela Rocco who steals the show as Rosalia because despite being the butt of most of the jokes she also has what must have been the more satisfying role to play and certainly allowing for more range than might first appear.

Needless to say someone as selfish as Ferdinando will get his comeuppance… or will he? And even if he does then what form will it take? ‘Divorce Italian Style’ leaves us guessing right up to the very end but the ending, when it comes, is as funny as it is horrific in its implications and with the slightest brush of a naked foot it seems as though trust and love might be nothing more than one big joke. But that could also be the reason we’re laughing so hard.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.