Many directors have certain themes that they explore again and again. In some cases, when they have nothing new to say, this can become repetitive and dull, but oftentimes it enriches both or all of the films involved.
In 1961, Pietro Germi directed his best-known film, the satire Divorce Italian Style. A somewhat down-at-the-heels Sicilian baron, Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni, delightfully sleazy), falls in love with his teenage cousin, Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). However, as divorce was illegal in Italy at the time, he has to figure out another way to get rid of his smothering wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), and he soon finds one: murder. If he can push her into an affair, catch her and her lover in a compromising position and kill them in the heat of the moment, he’ll only receive a three to seven year prison sentence because he was defending his and his family’s honor.
Family honor is also the focus of Germi’s next film, 1964’s Seduced and Abandoned. A Sicilian teenager named Agnese (Sandrelli again) is seduced (at best) by her sister’s fiance, Peppino (Aldo Puglisi), and becomes pregnant. When her father, Vincenzo (Saro Urzi), finds out, he becomes desperate to save his good name from shame — by any means necessary.
So many elements from Divorce Italian Style recur in Seduced and Abandoned that you hardly need to see the credits to know that they’re the work of the same person. (In addition to directing, Germi co-conceived both stories and co-wrote both screenplays.) Like Baron Cefalù, Vincenzo decides to take advantage of the light punishment for honor killings, though he sends his highly reluctant son to shoot Peppino so that it looks unpremeditated. Sandrelli’s character once again suffers physical abuse from her father and is forced to undergo a humiliating examination to see if her virginity is intact. The townspeople gossip about the situation. Peppino is mocked as a cuckold when it appears that his fiancee has left him for another man. A baron appears, this one giggly, destitute (far worse off than Mastroianni’s character) and missing several teeth, yet he’s considered a desirable catch for Agnese’s sister because of his title and family name. Even the music, by Divorce Italian Style composer Carlo Rustichelli, sounds the same. Above all, both films take a dark view of “honor” and its consequences while mining humor from the characters and circumstances involved.
What’s interesting is the way each story is presented. In Divorce Italian Style, Baron Cefalù serves as the narrator, so the audience is always attuned to his thoughts and plans and justifications for his heinous behavior. If we don’t exactly sympathize with him, we do become invested in his plot and curious to see if and how he’ll carry it out. One thing that facilitates this is the portrayal of his wife. Rosalia is terribly cloying, the kind of person who wants “just a tiny sip” from her husband’s coffee cup even though there’s a full pot in front of her, who asks, “Fefè, do you love me? How much, Fefè, how much?” Twelve years with her might drive anyone over the edge. Plus, actress Daniela Rocca is made up to look… less than attractive.
I can’t help wondering if we see Rosalia as she really is or if we see her filtered through her husband’s point of view. Baron Cefalù has numerous fantasies throughout the movie, envisioning ways he could do away with his wife (swallowed by sand, drowned in a vat of soap, launched into space in a rocket) and how his trial might play out. With his vivid imagination, it’s not hard to believe that he’s twisting or exaggerating certain details of his story, even when they’re presented as objective truth. This idea might be strengthened by the fact that we sometimes see scenes at which the baron isn’t present, like one where the family’s maid goes to confession; however, it doesn’t correspond well with the ending, where his narration indicates that he’s oblivious to what we’re watching. At any rate, Rosalia comes across as a caricature instead of a full-fledged human being.
Seduced and Abandoned has no narrator, unless you count the expository song that plays occasionally, and there’s no single dominant perspective. While the movie spends a lot of time on Vincenzo and his machinations, it’s Agnese who grounds it and gives it its humanity. She has comedic moments, like her attempt at nonchalance when she goes to report that her brother is going to kill Peppino, but she’s never a grotesque or a joke like Rosalia. We sympathize with her from the beginning, and the more things spiral out of control, the more poignant her suffering becomes.
Perhaps because we have a female character with whom to identify, Seduced and Abandoned emphasizes the sexism, hypocrisy and double standards involved in “honor” more than its predecessor does. While these things are certainly present in Divorce Italian Style — witness, for instance, the scene where the family’s maid is blamed for the baron’s father’s lechery, not to mention the way the law “considers the jealousy of the woman, but it doesn’t protect her honor” — they’re ubiquitous and even more blatant in the later film. When Vincenzo learns that Agnese is pregnant, he beats her, calls her a whore and locks her up, declaring, “You’ll never leave this room again!” He also explodes upon discovering that another daughter’s fiance has written “I plant fervent kisses on your lips” under the stamp of an envelope containing a very prosaic letter — and that’s before he finds out about Agnese. However, another scene shows him having a rather crude sexual conversation with his friends in a hotel lobby, and when a trio of prostitutes arrives, he’s the first to approach them and offer them a drink. (Peppino subsequently shows up at the hotel, having followed the women, and has to lie to Vincenzo that he’s there to talk to a professor.)
Later, the increasingly tangled situation lands everyone in front of a magistrate. Because Agnese is only fifteen, Peppino stands accused of corrupting a minor. His lawyer’s advice? “Attack her character. Remember: whore!” (Peppino then offers his version of the incident, Rashomon-style, in which Agnese is an aggressive seductress and he just wants to read Famiglia cristiana magazine.) Absurdly, the charges will all be wiped out if he marries her.
The double standard is made most explicit during a conversation between Peppino and his parents. He refuses to marry Agnese because she’s not a virgin, and he asks his father if he would have married his wife under the same circumstances. “You tried to get me to,” she says. Her husband responds, “So? It’s a man’s right to ask, a woman’s duty to refuse.” Under pressure from her, he finally answers Peppino’s question: “Certainly not!”
Because they take different approaches to the subject matter, similar though it is, Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned make excellent companion pieces. The former tends to keep an ironic distance; the latter is somehow more farcical and more harrowing at once; both prove that Pietro Germi could present serious social criticism and generate laughs at the same time.