About midway through Divorce Italian Style, Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Fefe, watches La Dolce Vita for the first time. Everyone around him sits in wonder of the film and the theater is packed, but he can’t wait to get out. Fefe is stuck not only in this crowded theater, but he is stuck in his town, in his marriage, in his debt, and in his half mansion. Just as he breaks through the theater and into the quiet uncrowded street, he eventually breaks out of his marriage and his situation, but not without some bumps along the way.
Fefe is an interesting man. An impoverished and idle aristocrat by birth, Fefe has nothing to occupy his time except for his obsession with his beautiful and frightfully young cousin. He watches her sleep in her room inbetween the slates in the bathroom window and he fantasizes. But he doesn’t just fantasize about her, but about all the different ways he can kill his current wife. Sporting a healthy mustache, his wife as seen as clinging, nervous, and ultimately too devoted to him. He is in other words extremely bored with her. She can’t help but insert herself into his life and it is easy to say that he hates her for it. She is as oppressive as the hot Scillian sun, turning off the fan every time she bursts into his private study, mixing hot, sugary coffee for him like he is two, and crooning his name again and again. It would drive even the most devoted husband nuts. So Fefe hatches a plan to become a public cuckold (a man who is cheated on by his wife very publicly) and then to murder his wife in a crime of passion. The only Italian version of divorce that was legalish at the time.
He plants the seeds, watches them bloom and develop as he imagines the ultimate deed, the trial, and his eventual release into his cousin’s arms. Everything drives him to the ending point and he is relentless in his pursuit, even when he doubts himself late at night while gazing into the mirror.
The director Pietro Germi cuts through societal issues and hypocrisies with his razor-sharp dialogue and his absurd situations. He asks the question about how can it be possible that divorce is seen as the worst mortal sin possible but killing a spouse after stumbling upon them cheating with another person is seen as totally justified and is sympathized with? He asks this question with every frame mocking the ancient aristocracy that officially accomplish nothing in life, the masses of people who uphold and place on high barons and baronesses even when they hold no power over them, and the need to uphold tradition at every turn. He answers the question at the very end (I won’t tell you the ending although it is a pretty awesome one) with the old axiom “Careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” If you wish for a smart comedy that mocks everything that was held dear in Italy at the time, and a chance to see Marcello Mastroianni’s comedy chops, then you just might get it with this film.