June 4, 2009

Marriage: Italian Style (1964)


Director: Vittorio de Sica

102 min


Naples, the 1940s-1960s. Filumena, an attractive middle aged woman, falls ill whilst driving. Her neighbours take her to her bed. Domenico, her on-off lover, is having an affair with a young cashier, Diana, whom he plans to marry. Concerned about Filumena’s welfare, he visits. He has a flashback of how they met during the Second World War. She was a 17 year old prostitute and Domenico has kept her as his mistress ever since, with no intention of ever marrying her. He sets her up in apartments and provides employment but rejects any commitment. When he disappears for months on business, one of Domenico’s employees, Alfredo, proposes. Domenico returns and offers to introduce Filumena to his mother. An old, senile woman; Domenico asks Filumena to be her maid, even sleeping in the maid’s room. Filumena regularly observes Domenico’s faithlessness.

In the present, Domenico offers to marry Filumena on her deathbed, which is overseen by a priest delivering the last rites. After, Filumena reveals her deception. In her flashbacks, Filumena reveals she gave birth to three boys, which Domenico is unaware of. They have been raised by a family friend, unaware of who their real mother is. Domenico discovers this and seeks an annulment of their marriage. Filumena tells Domenico one of the boys is his. He then attempts to discover which. No closer to finding out, he and Filumena physically argue, then embrace. This time, they marry for real.


By the 1960s, neo-realism, the movement that had reinvigorated Italian cinema after the Second World War, was an afterthought for Italian film makers. Those directors who’d made their names with neo-realist films had moved into different projects and different genres. Fellini was becoming more ambitious and self-reflexive. Visconti entered a world of lurid and increasingly overblown melodrama. Rossellini worked on more historical-based films. Vittorio de Sica, one of the founders of neo-realism, was working more in the field of comedy, usually with Sophia Loren. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ fits perfectly into this template, following the likes of ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ with its typically Italian ribald sense of humour.

This said though, despite the admiration of Hollywood (the film collected two Academy Award nominations but didn’t the Academy just love anything Italian in this era?), one can’t help but thinking that de Sica, after directing the seminal ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D’, is spreading his talents a bit too thinly here. The remaining former neo-realists adjusted to the decline of the movement (although a relative latecomer, Pasolini was doing his bit with ‘Accatone’ and ‘Mamma Roma’), but de Sica seems to have settled into a nice routine of undemanding and trivial comedies, albeit those that have a fair amount of entertaining qualities. Doubtless they made Loren a star and contributed to Mastroianni’s iconic status, but one feels that they do no long term favours for any personnel involved.

Still, Loren is nothing if not impressive, carefully balancing a series of emotions as she tries to hoodwink the lover who’s kept her at arm’s length for two decades, proving that there’s far more to her than meets the eye. Her acting gifts match her looks. Already in her collaborations with de Sica, she’d proved herself more than capable of breaking out of the carefully constructed image of her, whether it’s the more comic performances in ‘The Gold of Naples’ or the more serious, dramatic performances of ‘Two Women’. Here, she shows an equal amount of range. There’s no doubt Filumena’s role is given more importance by de Sica, thus giving Loren more to work with. Mastroianni looks suave and dapper, but is really playing a by-numbers cad who finally sees the error of his ways. He’s deliberately afforded little depth.

There’s a nice degree of if not social satire, than social observation, in how the Filumena-Domenico relationship functions on a grander level. She runs his businesses and makes him wealthier and then takes care of his ailing mother. All of the while, he’s playing the field, moving from one woman to the next. He’s far more dependent on her than he cares to imagine. Yet she’s able to seize the initiative and make their relationship more one of equals through initially hoodwinking him into marriage and then stalling his attempts to annul the marriage by teasing him about which of her three sons might be his. She claims it’s one, perhaps it’s all three. There’s some nice comic moments as Domenico tries to remember dates or thinks which of the boys most takes after him. Filumena’s power lies in his curiosity and inability to find out the truth. She demands that all her children must be treated equally. Whether there’s any political undercurrents to ‘Marriage: Italian Style’, it’s difficult to say, given the sheer superficiality of this frothy farce, but there’s definitely a sense of bringing the bourgeois bounder down a peg or two from the initial feigning of illness to his final submission of her will.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is genuinely fine on its own merits. Had it not been the collaboration of seriously talented personnel, you’d overlook the shallowness quite easily and just enjoy. There’s that constant impression though that you’ve been short-changed somehow; that ultimately, it’s a nice-looking, nicely-acted but completely inconsequential piece of work that could have been better, more substantial. Whilst it’s amusing in the main, the more bawdy aspects of humour just seem lazy. When Filumena and Domenico first make love, the next time we see Filumena, she walks down the street and dozens of boys and men just gawp at her, transfixed. This scene could have come from hundreds of films, which maybe even imitated this one, but it still feels too obvious. It’s lightly handled by de Sica, who never takes the film too seriously and one might even feel entitled to compare it to classic Hollywood battles of the sexes romantic comedies, although I’m not sure it’s an avenue worth pursuing. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is all about surface and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is released on DVD on 8 June on Mr Bongo films.


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