Italian cinema has historically been undervalued in relation to those of the United States, several other European countries, and post-World War II Japan. Yet, in the silent days, directors like Pastrone, Guazzoni, and Gallone paved the way for Griffith and DeMille, and Camerini and Blasetti blossomed in the 1930s. The Neorealist giants (Visconti, Rossellini, De Sica) and the succeeding generation (Fellini, Antonioni) finally established that Italy was a major player. The next generation (Pasolini, Bertolucci, Bellocchio) overlapped and rivaled the French New Wave, and Italy turned out to have an incredibly “deep bench”: Monicelli, Rosi, Olmi, Leone, the Taviani brothers, Scola, Petri, Zurlini, Zeffirelli, and several more filled out the roster. In this mix was Pietro Germi (1914–1974).
Germi, like so many of his colleagues, had studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica in Rome. He had begun writing screenplays before the war and became a director shortly after its conclusion. Divorce, Italian Style was his first international success, winning an Oscar for its screenplay. He was fortunate to get Marcello Mastroianni (who was nominated for an Oscar for this role, though he never won one), fresh from his worldwide acclaim for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (which the Sicilian villagers in Germi’s film attend) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte. The actor brought a special ironic twinkle to the longstanding movie convention of the “Latin lover” that dates back to Rudolph Valentino.
Sicily had changed some in the century separating the setting for Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) and Germi’s film (after all, they now had a movie theater), which was actually made two years before Visconti’s epic (and which we will be showing in a few weeks)—but perhaps it didn’t change so much. Germi was from Genoa, but many of his films were set in Sicily (one critic has compared Germi’s use of the island to John Ford’s attachment to Monument Valley), which offered filmmakers fertile visual and social ground. The extremities of family honor were fair game for satire, and for this Germi had a subtle gift. In fact, there are interesting parallels between Mastroianni’s baron and Burt Lancaster’s leopard. In Visconti’s film, based on the novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Lancaster has to restrain his attraction to his nephew’s fiancée for generational reasons and to maintain his princely dignity amid the tedium of family life, but the modern desperation of Mastroianni’s Ferdinando is such that he is free to fantasize about various hilarious schemes of liberation from married life, eventually resulting in murder. It’s a film that would never have passed the Hollywood Production Code. (Seduced and Abandoned, made three years later, is even more outrageous.) Germi, who had begun as a Neorealist disciple of Roberto Rossellini, wound up very cleverly questioning the traditional values of rigid Italian society—which made his death at 60 even more untimely.