Ettore Scola’s ‘Jealousy, Italian Style’ (1970) is a tragedy. We know this because it opens with a terrible murder being re-enacted by the main suspect. From here the film flashes back in time to uncover the events leading to such a terrible crime and it is a litany of adultery, infidelity, deceit, violence, attempted suicides, urban filth and squalor, class struggle, destitution and insanity.
Sounds like this tale of doomed love covers some pretty dark territory, and that’s certainly the case. However, it’s also smart as hell, stylish and very, very funny.
Construction worker and married man, Oreste (an incredibly filthy Marcello Mastroianni) falls in love with beautiful florist Adelaide (Monica Vitti). The beaches of Rome might be covered in trash, dead cats and god-knows-what but that doesn’t stop them making love, their passion acting almost as a sort of santiser rendering the surrounding garbage irrelevant. Everything is perfect and even that blowfly that follows the unwashed Oreste around can’t spoil their happiness.
This perfection is shattered when, whilst out for pizza one night, Adelaide catches the eye of young and handsome pizza-maker, Nello (Giancarlo Giannini), who falls instantly in love with her. Obviously this infuriates Oreste no end especially as the two men have since bonded over the Communist cause. Even though Adelaide eventually falls in love with Nello she still loves Oreste and even though Oreste can’t stand Nello for stealing his woman he still feels a pang of fraternity with the guy. Surely there must be a solution to this predicament?
There is an obvious answer, although it’s a tad unconventional — a three-way relationship! The only question now is which bond will break first in this volatile love triangle and are we allowed to laugh when it does?
‘Jealousy, Italian Style’s humour works so effectively because director Scola and his actors take all these already heightened passions and exaggerate them to hilarious degrees. For example — there’s a fantastic scene where Oreste, now knowing she is seeing Nello behind his back, takes Adelaide out for dinner at the pizzeria Nello works at so he can publically call the two of them out for their lascivious behaviour in front of all the staff and costumers.
It’s your typical scene of furious Italians shouting at each other until Oreste is finally dragged outside and everyone can calm down. However, Oreste then casually reveals has taken a huge load of amphetamines along with several litres of coffee so storms straight back in kicks the argument right back off again and with an even greater intensity. It’s funny as hell.
And it’s just as well Scola’s film is funny because its view of love, Rome and Italians is absolutely scathing. Rome might be the “Eternal City” but, much like Oreste himself, it’s filthy to its core, refuse piling up where ancient glories once existed. As for love? It’s as sick as the city itself meaning the image of Oreste and Adelaide lovingly drinking wine on top of a rubbish tip seems to be saying “Thought Rome was the city of amore? Well, it is but here’s the reality.”
‘Jealousy, Italian Style’ is a deliciously bitter and dark comedy that will have you laughing at things you feel you know you shouldn’t really be laughing at. Scola correctly knows that these sorts of emotions are so out of control, so wild already that comedy is essential for it to carry any real weight. After all, take all this jealousy stuff too seriously and it risks lapsing into nothing but operatic histrionics, which is one of my problems with Visconti’s ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ (1960).
Interest levels are kept nicely engaged by Scola’s technically deft use of transitioning between scenes, POVS and periods in time by cleverly inserting and detaching various characters from their places in time and space so they can comment on proceedings or provide alternative recollections. A gorgeously swaying and romantically idealised soundtrack, some phenomenal visual compositions and an excellent production design that’s modern and cool also help make ‘Jealousy, Italian Style’ a true pleasure to watch. Trash, rubbish, filth and death have never looked so good.