8 December 2006 | theowinthrop
When America First Met Marcello
In my lifetime I have seen about ten to twenty films with Marcello Mastroianni in them, including two made before he made "Divorce Italian Style", but for me the film that imprinted himself to American film audiences was this one. His Baron Ferdinando Cefalo is one of the cleverest homicidal figures in movies, and yet one of the most bumbling. One can say he succeeds despite himself.
Set in Sicily, then as now the poorest area of Italy and one of the most backward, the film shows how the Baron is bored by his present wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), a good woman but somewhat overwhelming in her unwanted affection. Rosalia is not unattractive (in a lightly heavy manner), but she is certainly not currently able to get more than a mild interest in her husband in whatever she is doing. The Baron is quite interested in his young female cousin Angela (Stefania Andrelli), a vibrant and young woman who is about to go to convent school. Baron Ferdinando would love to marry Angela, but how to get rid of Rosalia? Divorce (as Americans know it) is not liked in Catholic countries, particularly in the most backward sections of them. But the laws of the day in Italy (say about 1955 or so) have a crazy version of the so-called "unwritten law" regarding shooting adulterers...except the Italian version allows for the shooting of the guilty spouse by his or her wronged spouse, and the granting of a relatively light sentence (believe it or not three years!).
The problem is that the killer must catch the adulterous pair in their act of guilty passion when they are doing it. And there must be sufficient emotional pressure on the perpetrator to justify a case of sudden homicidal impact. Baron Ferdinando has to orchestrate out of artificial methods the exact situation to enable him to legally kill Rosalia. He presses ahead, and his society is shown for all it's secrets and backwardness.
First, he studies up on the law and recent cases, even checking out the grand Italian lawyer with his flowery oratory style who he will use (later on we hear the lawyer's possible future speech describing some of the actions of the Baron as he pursues his dream). Then he has to find a good patsy - who is the other man? Here he finds this fellow is gay, that one is happily married, that one (in the choir) has...well a physical problem. Finally he selects an old friend of Rosalia, a painter from Messena named Carmelo Patane (Leopoldo Trieste). The Baron gives Carmelo a restoration job in his villa (I'm kind when I call his ramshackle home that), and then makes sure that Rosalia and Carmelo are left by themselves a lot.
In his way he tries to be modern in this 18th Century atmosphere. He tape records the private conversations of Rosalia and Carmelo to see if they have finally broken down to commit their adultery. This is far more tedious than he hoped, as Rosalia tries to maintain her loyalty to his husband, and Carmelo keeps a major secret from Rosalia. As they break down there is also the problems of the love-sick maid who Carmelo is also attracted to. And as each problem arises we watch the Baron try to figure out how to overcome them.
When the crisis arises finally we see the locals at their worst, with the men laughing at the Baron's being cuckolded, but everyone freezing out him and his family because his reaction is to take to his bed. But he is only waiting for the right moment to avenge his honor. When will it occur, or will it ever occur?
Italian cinema had been part of the international film language since 1945 with Neo-realism, and masters like Rossalini, De Sica, and (later) Fellini. Some of the films of the 1950s, like the original "Big Deal On Madonna Street", included Mastroianni in the casts, but others (Vittorio Gassman, Toto) were the stars or shared the fun. This film put him on the map for our audiences, with his proper, well dressed, soft-spoken minor aristocrat, with his "tic" (he clicks his mouth when something unexpected or unpleasant occurs around him). With slicked down hair and droopy, trimmed mustache, he looks like a man whose been losing at gambling tables all night at the rate of one lira an hour - no smile, but no real feeling of great loss. It was a memorable dead pan performance. He never quite repeated it (most of his characters were far more lively in their antics), but it stamped itself on American audiences. Soon his series of films with Sophia Loren cemented him into the position of Italy's leading romantic male film figure and great farceur. He never failed to live up to those two views in all of the films he appeared in until his death in 1996.