Marcello Mastroianni enters the film "Divorce Italian Style" with his hair perfectly slicked back, his ubiquitous sunglasses covering his world weary eyes, and a cigarette holder dangling from the side of his mouth. He is the picture of over-coiffed, under-worked, chauvinistic hauteur. He also happens to be exiting the bathroom of a train. And this entrance sets the tone of the entire movie: a bored aristocrat with a very distinct image of himself, perpetually undercut by the image being presented to us by Pietro Germi, the director of this 1962 Italian film.
The film is not merely Italian; however, it is very specifically a film about Sicily. In Sicily, sons of Barons have nothing to do but sit around in their fathers' decaying castles, ruminating on their lineage and their honor while the voices of overbearing wives and screaming parents echo throughout the halls. Such is the fate of Ferdinando, called Fefe by his adoring wife, who wanders about the overcrowded rooms in the family estate with the air of someone who is one last gasp away from asphyxiation. So when this thirty-seven year old "falls in love" with his sixteen year old cousin, a pretty girl who lives on the other side of the crumbling castle, a viewer is less inclined to see it as true love and more inclined to greet the burgeoning relationship with a resounding "ew." However, longing looks soon give way to physical affection, and in a way only acceptable in Italian films and E.M. Forster novels. But while Fefe and his cousin Angela are off playing garden of earthly delights, there is still the problem of his wife, Rosalia. And here we come back to Sicily. Because in Sicily, divorce is completely, utterly, it's not even negotiable illegal. Murder, however? Is kind of okay, as long as there is sufficient reason. So, Fefe hatches a plot to kill his wife, involving one of Rosalia's old flames, a tape recorder, a hole in the wall, and a fair amount of falsified evidence. And his attempts at playing the mastermind work almost perfectly, until one night when the entire town has gathered to watch "La Dolce Vita." Just as Anita Ekberg implores Fefe's onscreen counterpart to "Follow me, Marcello, follow me!" Rosalia and her once upon a lover are following the last train out of town. And of course they leave on a train, because in this tiny little world of Sicily, where the only thing people have to do is sit around in stifling rooms and narrate their own lives, trains don't merely give people momentum: they give the narrative momentum as well.
So poor Fefe is left in something of a quandary. He has been dishonored, women spit at him in disgust, and he receives bags of hate mail. However, he greets these new circumstances with the same level of detached disinterest with which he greets everything. Indeed, when shuffling through his mail, when he comes upon a letter sympathetic to his plight, he tears it up, deeming it detrimental to the inevitable court case to come. And come it does. It is every bit as wonderful as Fefe had imagined it would be, as the lawyer touches on every topic from emotional distress to disreputable fathers. And Fefe, of course, gets off with three years of jail time, the minimum sentence for crimes of passion. And when he gets out, Angela has waited for him. Sort of. So perhaps life really does begin at forty. Or perhaps Fefe is just sinking, sinking, sinking, just like his reputation post Rosalia's runaway and just like all those fantasies he had of Rosalia's death (death by boiling vat of soap and death by quicksand were the standouts). But there is little else to do but sink, in this world where one day the news headline is about a man in space and the next day it's about a man killing his wife and getting away with it. The times are changing and this world of Fefe, coated as it is in layers of hair pomade, sweat, and male chauvinism, is inevitably going to sink. And personally? I vote death by vat of soap.