The Italian neo-realists generally followed similar career paths, beginning by making movies about the urban poor and the village fishermen they admired, and ending by making movies about the rich and the celebrities they themselves had become. Director Pietro Germi, born middle-class, moved a little differently from his more aristocratic peers. He started as a neo-realist, then became an international success with gritty crime thrillers and domestic satires. To Germi, they were all of a piece. Even his signature film, Divorce Italian Style, was intended as a suspenseful drama until Germi started working with the material and found the stuff of piercing comedy.
Funny though it is, Divorce Italian Style isn't too far removed from neo-realism—or at least not neo-realism as practiced by Federico Fellini, back when he favored episodic melodramas full of conventional gags and plot twists. Fellini favorite Marcello Mastroianni stars in Divorce Italian Style as a Sicilian baron undergoing a midlife crisis. He feels smothered by his wife Daniela Rocca, a lightly mustachioed woman with a witchy laugh and a ravenous sexual appetite, and he still sees himself as a desirable catch, able to turn young ladies' heads with his wealth and good looks. Mastroianni is especially attracted to his teen cousin Stefania Sandrelli, but being Catholic, he can't do much about it. His best bet is to catch his wife with another man, kill her, and plead "crime of passion." So he goes looking for a man who might want to sleep with Rocca.
That plot description could fit farce or noir, and Divorce Italian Style is a little of both, with the noir elements coming through Mastroianni's whispered flashback narration and dark fantasies. Some of the comedy is absurd, but it's never really over the top, and Germi grounds it in an unflinching depiction of southern Italy in the early '60s. The island is alive with rock 'n' roll and communism, both of which came easy to a people used to living in loud, multi-family households. But while their politics are liberated, their religion isn't, and they're far from open-minded in gender relations. The men of Mastroianni's neighborhood are haunted by the headlines—"Man Orbits Earth!" one screams—and by the local theater's screening of La Dolce Vita, which shows a lifestyle of carousing happening not too far away. Germi constantly reminds the audience of what his characters can't have, by sticking his nubile young women behind shuttered windows, or in open courtyards where the view is obstructed by poles. Divorce Italian Style's critique of Italian hypocrisy comes through clearest in the scene where a man watches Anita Ekberg cavorting in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita. He hastens to tell his fiancée that Ekberg is "a great-looking specimen, but I can tell she has no soul," but at the same time, he can't stop himself from looking.