Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni), the protagonist of Pietro Germi’s 1961 film Divorce Italian Style, is a man in love. Alas, there’s a problem. Is it the fact that Angela (Stefania Sandrelli), the object of his affections, is his first cousin? Is it that she’s sixteen and he’s thirty-seven? No, no; these are mere trifles as far as he’s concerned. The real problem is that he’s already married to the suffocating Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), and because divorce is illegal in early 1960s Sicily, he’s stuck with her… unless she should happen to die. Ah, but how to accomplish that? Fantasize though he will — he imagines her stabbed and pushed into a vat of soap, drowned in quicksand, shot by the Mafia, launched into space — no viable solution presents itself until a local murder trial makes the news.
A young woman named Mariannina Terranova stands accused of killing her unfaithful lover. She can’t deny the crime, which took place outside of a movie theater, nor does she try; instead, her lawyer (Pietro Tordi) argues that she was simply, and rightly, defending her honor, and public opinion is strongly in her favor. “The collective honor of the south had found its heroine,” the baron says in a voiceover. Inspired, he consults the penal code and finds an article that could hold the answer to his dilemma: “He who causes the death of spouse, daughter or sister upon discovering her in illegitimate carnal relations and in the heat of passion caused by the offense to his honor or that of his family will be sentenced to three to seven years.” He does the math. Seven years in prison would be a bit much, but he reasons that his social position and his sex will buy him a shorter sentence than Terranova, who got eight. “Terranova — no, her crime can’t be considered the same,” he muses. “The law is clear. It considers the jealousy of the woman, but it doesn’t protect her honor. Eight years. That’s certainly quite a stretch of time, but she’s a bricklayer’s daughter. She’s vulgar, ignorant, ugly. A common-law wife! Whereas I’m a gentleman, with a college degree, an exemplary husband of almost fifteen years. An aristocrat!”
All he has to do, then, is push Rosalia into an affair, catch her and her lover in a compromising position and kill her “in the heat of passion” — a supposedly spontaneous act that, in his case, is premeditated down to the last detail. As he lays his trap for her, he imagines the eloquent, pathetic defense that the lawyer will spin for him at his trial. If his plans hit a snag or he changes his mind about something, he has to revise the voice in his head, but whatever happens, he depicts himself as the victim and Rosalia as the villain. Does he believe that’s the truth? Not really. Much as he may want to believe it, he’s far too calculating not to know exactly how the situation stands. (That said, one wonders if his vivid imagination causes him to present Rosalia as more of a grotesque than she actually is. He narrates the film, and his objectivity is questionable at best.) What matters is that the judge and the general populace will accept his distorted version of the events; after all, public sentiment and the law itself are in his favor.
Divorce Italian Style is a biting satire on a society in which so-called honor is considered more valuable than the life of a human being — particularly when they’re a man’s honor and a woman’s life. Male chauvinism pervades the baron’s world. Perhaps the most glaring example occurs when his lecherous father (Odoardo Spadaro) grabs the rear end of the family’s young servant, Sisina (Margherita Girelli), as soon as she turns her back on him. She protests to the baron’s mother (Bianca Castagnetta), who not only excuses her husband’s behavior but blames the girl: “You watch out, or I’ll tell your father. You know how he is.” Boys will be boys, apparently, yet when Angela’s father (Ugo Torrente) suspects that she has a lover, he beats her and forces her to undergo a humiliating examination by a midwife to ensure that she’s “undefiled.” Although he has a vested interest in preserving her virginity — he intends to marry her off for money — his reaction isn’t so extraordinary considering the culture in which he lives. (Germi would expand on these themes in his next film, 1964’s Seduced and Abandoned.) If the law supports his view of women, what chance do Angela, Sisina and Rosalia have? The motto on display at the courthouse practically drips with bitter irony: “La legge è uguale per tutti” — “The law is equal for all.”
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