More than a decade removed from the rubble and ravaged streets of immediate post-war Italy, well into and beyond the reconstruction and stabilization of the years following, ushered in with a prevailing sense of modernity and a new sociocultural system of existence, and driven by a new desire for “La dolce vita,” Italian cinema in the early 1960s and through the decade was one of innovation and change. In this new wave of Italian cinema we begin to see a people coming to terms not with their past (those days are done) and not really with the future (who can predict it?) but with the now, with the immediate, with the vitality of the present. Looking chronologically, the films Divorzio all'italiana (Pietro Germi, 1961), Il sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962), and Matrimonio all'italiana (Vittorio De Sica, 1964) all broach the topic of established and acceptable social customs in opposition to the burgeoning instability and verve of a kinetic modernity.
Germi’s film examines these ideas through a dark comedy about a man, Ferdinando (Marcello Mastroianni), trying to think of a logical, and legal, way to get a divorce from his wife so that he can marry his true object of desire, his 16 year-old cousin. In just that brief synopsis we see already just how the two features of Italian life are at odds with each other. The illegality of divorce, the stigma that goes along with it in Italy at the time, is representative of the social systems already in place. The way in which Ferdinando goes about his plan for an acceptable divorce (setting up his wife to be unfaithful so that he can subsequently kill her and move on) stands as a rather overt attack on social mores. It, in many ways, “reflects the freakish absurdities of Italian society while mimicking the forces that created them.” (Liehm, 216) In this new modernity, which, as just one of its consequences, contains if not encourages a considerable amount of selfishness, only the simplistically viewed and reasonably inconsequential murder of ones spouse can therefore alleviate the burden of an outmoded social restriction. This, surely, is a sign of the times.
The ways in which Ferdinando is shown to be annoyed with his wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), also emphasizes the rather banal reality of these characters. Regardless of any positive attributes she may have, he, and thus the film, as he is clearly to be our protagonist, only see her and her smothering (over)affection. Could this have been practical grounds for divorce in years previous, or is this just symptomatic of a new way of looking at all facets of life, not the least of which is marriage and family? Here, we see just how bitingly Germi “dissect[s] the senseless and unwritten codes of behavior governing relationships between the sexes in that male-dominated, insular culture.” (Bondanella,150).
The fact that the neighboring community supports the decision to murder his adulteress only adds to the feeling of absurdity in the picture; indeed, Peter Bondanella notes how, “Germi’s plot—and that of most Italian films dealing with social customs—may be described as the reduction ad absurdum type wherein a ‘social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos and the social question to absurdity.’” (151) Here, their scorn for Ferdinando as he initially (though intentionally) does nothing to avenge his “honor,” the way they are so exhilarated when the deed is done, clues us in to just what Germi is commenting on with this film. Though there are rules, as seemingly ridiculous as they are, the breaking of these rules, while apparently almost necessary for one to live ones life as desired, are equally preposterous. In a world where the social custom dictates that one can not legally get a divorce, where the scheming to ultimately kill one’s wife is the final solution, what shape is modernity taking? Is this where society is heading?
Neighbors and community in this film can not be ignored. They embody the old ways, if you will, the stabilization of the social customs. It’s therefore an interesting commentary on the part of the filmmakers then that they are still granted such importance. While, as mentioned, the films here are not necessarily looking to the past, they can still not escape from the past. As much as Ferdinando may act out and deviate from these ridged societal restraints, he is nevertheless indebted to, and dependent upon, them.
The intertextual reference to Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita here (also starring Mastroianni) is more than just a Godardian allusion. Not only is the picture shown, but the scandal that came with the feature is also acknowledged. This is a new kind of film, a new kind of life; it’s a new way of looking at this life. La dolce vita (“the sweet life”) is not just an incidental movie showing in town. It is clearly a sign of what is coming, what is developing in this cultural clash between implanted social customs and the evolving concept of modernity. More than a metaphor for modernity, La dolce vita in Divorzio all'italiana is a sort of metonym—it is modernity. With entirely comedic intentions (and the result is hilarious), Germi and Mastroianni specifically, do a good deal to make this picture not only a wonderful film but also one with a purpose.
Risi’s Il sorpasso, equally amusing, takes the theme of social norms being contested, assaulted, and perhaps ousted by a modernity and runs with it, literally so in this “road trip” of bombastic behavior and an even more explicit selfishness. Here, impulsive and self-absorbed Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) meets quite by accident Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a naive, good-natured, young law student. After some convincing, Bruno takes Roberto with him on what amounts to an episodic odyssey through modern life and its struggle against nearly all normative notions of social behavior and existence.
Bruno, throughout the picture, has a total disregard for proper behavior; he is loud, arrogant (or, perhaps, just overly confident), and irresponsible, noisily honking his horn at Roberto’s quiet family home (and everywhere really) for example. He also displays a total distain for established rules and order, speeding and serving dangerously on the road without a care in the world. While this undoubtedly makes for a rather intriguing and even appealing character, Risi also sets up Bruno to embody a modernity that is making a direct break from social customs, possibly dangerously so. This, then, is arranged to be in contrast to Roberto, who represents the struggle to cope with and conform to a changing contemporary life. Though he has his youthfulness, he is weighed down in the regulatory aspects of society’s acceptable conventions. It is, after all, no coincidence that he studies law.
As the two start to get friendly and bond, we see them each unravel the layers of their personality, revealing, in essence, an image of Italy at the time. Bruno, it is eventually shown, does understand responsibility. Back with his ex-wife and daughter, he begins to gravitate towards a familiar association. Suddenly, he cares and wants to be with them, particularly the daughter Lilly, who is dating a much older man (for which, see those established social customs of responsibility, ethics, temperance). His apparent recognition of his own faults yields to a slight, if genuine, understanding of what is in fact most crucial in life, even if the notion is fleeting. Roberto, conversely, lets himself go somewhat by the end of the picture. He makes bold steps, admitting that the days spent with Bruno have been the best of his life, and finally trying to contact the girl he has had a crush on. The relationship between he and this neighboring girl represents in many ways a view on modernity itself. With modernity we tend to think of youth, or at least younger people, and the eventual break in his shyness points towards a path to some degree of modern life for the young student.
As far as an ideal concept of modernity, Bruno is about the best example there could be. His attitude and actions are absorbing. There’s little doubt about it, he’s a funny guy, a walking adventure, and his heedless behavior and his disregard for authority and authoritarian social systems stand as, for many, unattainable, though desired, exploits. His modernity is one of pure energy, of doing what one feels like, when one feels like, without consequences or policies. This modernity is all about the now, having a good time, making the most out of life, getting your kicks any way you can. To quote Scarface, “the world is yours.” But, as we see (the end couldn’t be more tragic) this doesn’t often work out totally for the positive. No matter the shape of a blossoming and invigorating modernity, the literal and more abstract customs of life are restrictive, sometimes for the better (there’s a reason one isn’t supposed to drive like Bruno does). Bruno’s behavior also gets himself in a fight and, whether or not he is actually cognizant of it, his actions truly hurt people. It may all look great to behave in such a fashion, but society dictates moderation and responsibility. Within a modernity of impulse and dynamism, any given system of customary social manners is continually conflicted.
Perhaps showing his affinity for years gone by, without actually focusing on them, De Sica with Matrimonio all'italiana begins with World War II, then moves on to some more than 20 years later in the life of a suave, womanizing businessman, Domenico (Mastroianni again—there is, indeed, no actor who so magnificently, so totally and convincingly expressed masculine trials and tribulations in an increasingly conflicted and perplexing society during this period in Italian film) and a cunning prostitute Filumena (Sophia Loren). In this picture, aside from the accepted modes of personal behavior, De Sica also uses the idea and the front of commerce and materialism to represent societal customariness, particularly relevant in this age of “economic miracles.” The ways in which Domenico and Filumena diverge, to varying degrees, from both is where most prominently this picture looks at the contention between Italian customs and a more idealistic concept of modernity.
With a sort of Visconti-esque quality, De Sica directs the film in a rather operatic manner, with melodramatic emotions, bursts of (unfortunately faded) color, and heighted, mood-manipulating musical accompaniment. This itself acts as a example of the above mentioned contention. It’s not at all unusual for a filmmaker to use these features in order to tell its story, it is, really, rather customary. But in 1964, and especially looking now, there is something decidedly old-fashioned about the construction, something not modern. Matrimonio all'italiana as a film bridges the gap between what is normal in Italian society (pure, simple, passionate storytelling) with what is modern (flashbacks, shifts in tone, self-conscious stylizations). But, of course, the real impact of this film as a movie displaying the questioning of these social customs against superlative modern perceptions goes beyond the mere artifice of the image.
While a considerable amount of the film is set is the past, there is again the connection with Visconti, notably the two great films Senso and Il gattopardo (as well as, later, some of Bernardo Bertolucci’s work), in the way De Sica, frankly less successfully than the other two, composes the film to discuss modern ideas in a setting of a previous era. That’s why, even as the film takes place in the past, it is very much about 1964 modernity and culture.
Industrialization was by this point a major part of the new Italian life, and as a lesser-noticed side-bar to that was the increase in more modest businesses. Money was now an integral and popular part of life in many parts of Italy. But, as that was the case, just getting by became of the utmost importance. In a new modernity that was heavily dependent on monetary factors, without those factors one was left behind, seemingly out of place.
With that in mind then, Domenico and Filumena are situated as being completely caught up in this aspect of modern life, and they are markedly attaining their established place in perhaps uncustomary ways. Domenico, though successful, occasionally seems to be not only inconsiderate of his employees but also of his business itself. It acts as simply a way to get the money he wants, to get what is required to live the life he wants to live (this a common theme of modernity). There isn’t necessarily anything personal about it. Similarly, as the profession necessitates, Filumena, as a prostitute, also does not have any private ties with her work, that is, until Domenico comes along. Generally for her though, her initial work is also simply a way of attaining funds. This would change as Domenico courts her and hires her; her work becomes more acceptable, even if their relationship doesn’t. Nevertheless, there is still the impression that she is not, possibly, working for, or loving, Domenico for all the right reasons—it would appear that much of what she does is simply for the betterment and satisfaction of her three chidden. This, of course, is not exactly a negative motive. As such, with this picture the character of Italian social customs, here those being specifically relationships and enterprise, are combated by the requisites and desires of a modern life.
The ideal concept of modernity for the two is also shattered, though that is maybe too harsh of a word, by the social traditions concerning responsibility and growing old. Like both Divorzio all'italiana and Il sorpasso, modern life, with its fervor and vitality, can not last in this film. By definition, modern is in the now, but there is always something after, and though one may not want to, in most cases to live and succeed thought should be given to that future. With Matrimonio all'italiana, De Sica is presenting two characters who, while previously having been caught up in the impulses of modern living, are now having to face the fact that Italian social customs do not always go away, but can often remain, still with their requirements. A life of promiscuity, a life of irresponsibility, and a life of concern for only the immediate can have its consequences. The film ends in a depiction of what is most commonly viewed as a preeminent social custom—marriage. But this is far from a Hollywood happy ending. Their idealized modern living is still infusing, negatively, their customary wedded bliss.
It’s telling that each of the three films here are comedies, or at least contain comedic elements. This allows for a somewhat more acceptable degree of criticism. It is also expressive of how, “[m]ore or less consciously, the makers of comedy films aimed to record, year after year, the changing face of society’s behaviour [sic], values, and customs, to hold up a critical but light-hearted mirror to the nation’s foibles.” (Nowell-Smith, 591) The comedies of the period, dubbed commedia all’italiana, were also notable in their critiques by the ways in which they would lay bare “an undercurrent of social malaise and the painful contradiction of a culture in rapid transformation.” (Bondanella, 145).
By the 1960s, international cinema, Italian film, and Italian culture were all shifting, all struggling to live in the present while thoughts and reminders of the past were never far behind. Peter Brunette cites Gian Piero Brunetta when looking at the change in Italian cinema during the start of the ever-developing decade of cinema. Brilliant in its explanation, the citation deserves a full reproduction here:
"The birth of a center-left government, new lifestyles, the rapid process of industrialization, the rise in mass consumption, the new distribution of leisure time, the maturation of a new social and political conscience, the change in sexual behavior and in social habits, the phenomenon of mass emigration from the south toward the large industrial centers of the north: all of this finds, in the cinema, a terrain that reacts immediately. Precisely in 1960s Italian cinema – like an extremely sensitive seismograph – notes and registers, with perfect timing, all the processes of transformation in the economic, social, and political life of Italians." (22)
The future seemed limitless with anything possible. It wasn’t hard to idealize a new, modern life, but sway as they might, those reveling in this contemporary existence could not completely separate from the social customs of the establishment. Regardless, however, this contention was not only vitally important, it was the very cause of so many great works of filmic art the world over. As much as conceivably outmoded traditions may appear to some as restrictive hindrances, they were required in order to have something to work against. An ideal concept of modernity is not possible without a contrast of some sort. With the three films examined here, the three filmmakers all present modern films, infused with modern ideas, characters, and behaviors, all looking at how one functions in a contemporary and volatile world while still maintaining some semblance of social order and custom.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance. Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, Ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1997.