Naples, World War II: With an air raid siren howling its warning in their ears, everybody in the vicinity of the port, a potential target, is running for shelter — well, not quite everybody. Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry to leave the bordello he’s visiting, though the prostitutes and the other clients have fled in terror. He takes time to look out the window, to turn off a record player, even to make a quip about the Italian army’s uniforms (“How are we supposed to win a war with people dressed like that?”) before strolling toward the exit. Only then does he realize that someone else is still in the building: a frightened girl (Sophia Loren) peeking out of one of the rooms. “Miss, aren’t you coming down?” he asks, to which she cries, “No, no!” and slams her door shut. Satisfied with this response, Domenico turns and starts walking away, until something makes him turn back. Is it kindness, a purehearted, altruistic concern for another human being’s welfare, or is his interest in her a bit less noble than that? Tellingly, he takes a second to fix his hair before approaching her room; then again, maybe that’s just a natural, thoughtless gesture in vain, womanizing, thoughtless man.
Upon letting himself in, he finds her huddled in a corner, and none of his urging will convince her to accompany him to the safety of the shelter. The girl, Filumena by name, is seventeen years old and has only been employed at the bordello for three days; to her, even death is preferable to having to show herself in public now. “There are people there! I’d be so ashamed down there,” she cries. Nearly hysterical, horrified by both the prospect of humiliation and the bombs that are beginning to fall outside her window, she drops to her knees throws her arms around Domenico’s legs. Domenico — who, more than once, has been on the verge of leaving without her — touches her chin, raising her face so that their eyes meet. The proverbial sparks fly.
All in all, it’s a rather perverse take on the typical romantic comedy meet cute, but it is very much in keeping with the rest of Vittorio De Sica’s 1964 film Marriage Italian Style.
As the events of Filumena and Domenico’s two-decade-plus relationship unfold in flashbacks, it quickly becomes clear that theirs has hardly been a romance for the ages. It’s not merely unromantic — it’s downright anti-romantic. Every time Domenico makes an ostensible gesture of love toward Filumena, every time he tries to demonstrate his alleged regard for her, there’s a catch: when he takes her to the racetrack, where she thinks he’ll show her off to his well-to-do friends, it’s on a day when no races are scheduled and the stands are empty (it’s “more poetic” that way, he insists); when he moves her into his house, he lets his mother (Vincenza Di Capua) think that she’s their former maid’s niece and expects Filumena to keep up this ruse, to the extent of sleeping in the maid’s room and helping his mother use a bedpan.
So much for romance; as far as comedy goes, the film is frequently, perhaps predominantly funny, yet the story is a sad, bitter one and Filumena a tragic figure. The product of a rough upbringing in a hot, smoky slum, with too many fighting family members and too little food, not to mention a local baker who helped her but also took advantage of her sexually, she was forced to grow up quickly. Prostitution, she decided after meeting a well-dressed friend who had taken up the profession, was a way out, a means of attaining a better life. By the time she and Domenico are reunited by chance, two years after the air raid, she appears to have lost the overwhelming sense of shame she experienced that night. She seems much more self-possessed, even vivacious — though that won’t last.
From this point on, she and Domenico see each other regularly, at least whenever he’s not traveling abroad for months at a time. Young, naive and desperate for affection, she mistakes their relationship for true love. Even as she becomes increasingly aware of his flaws — his selfishness, his callousness, his indifference — she doesn’t leave him. Maybe, deep down, she still holds out hope that things will change; maybe she simply doesn’t have any better options. For him, it’s an ideal arrangement: not only does she provide him with sex (which does nothing to prevent him from getting involved with other women), but she also functions as a servant and caretaker in his house and runs his bakery and pastry shops while he’s away. (In a display of twisted logic, he blames her for his long absences: “If you weren’t here to look after my affairs, I would be forced to stay here and take care of business.”) It’s clear early on that he views her as his inferior — he implies that her clothing isn’t good enough to be seen in his new car, mutters “mamma mia” when she struggles to sign her name on a document — and he makes this explicit in one of the present-day scenes: “If I had ever seen you act submissive or aware of our true situation…” He goes on to criticize her for always wearing an insolent scowl, for never crying. “Dummì,” she replies, using his nickname, “do you know when a person cries? When they know happiness but can’t have it. I don’t even know what happiness is. I never had the satisfaction of crying. You always treated me like the last woman on earth. God knows we have to atone for our sins, but how long do we have to pay for them?”
No wonder Filumena, at forty, looks prematurely old and worn out, able to pass for a woman at death’s door. Still, beaten down though she is, she’s not defeated. The more Domenico disrespects her, the more indignant she becomes, and when she learns that he’s engaged to the cashier at the bakery (Marilù Tolo) — a girl several decades his junior — she decides to resort to drastic measures: she’ll force him to marry her instead. In a flashback, she attempts to drop a hint about marriage to Domenico, only to have him brush it off with a laugh; in the present, there’s no longer any romance in the idea for her. All she wants is his name — a distinguished, respected name that she can bestow on all three of the sons (Gianni Ridolfi, Generoso Cortini, Vito Moricone) she’s borne in secret and brought up using Domenico’s money, though she claims that only one was fathered by him. Through it, she can give them the kind of opportunities she never had. Maternal love takes precedence.
Naturally, Domenico won’t accept this without putting up a fight of his own, and an all-out war ensues. Even if the film eventually manages to reach a (more or less) happy ending, it’s only achieved amidst cries of “I’ll kill you!” on her side and “Shut up!” on his. Considering the unconventional way in which the relationship begins and plays out, that’s really quite fitting.
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