Mastroianni plays Baron Ferdinando Cefalu, a nobleman living an idle life “filled with longing and nostalgia”. In public, he is respectable and reserved, a model of self-control. Privately however, he is desperate to escape his unhappy marriage to the amorous loud mouth, Rosalia. His family, although revered by the local community, is actually mired in the gambling debts wracked up by Mastroianni’s father. In order to save cash and bring income, Mastroianni has leased part of their mansion to his uncle, whose daughter, Angela, is not only his pretty, teenage cousin but also the source of his longing, the object of his desire.
In Divorce Italian Style, director Pietro Germi has fashioned a comedy of delicious cynicism and delightful absurdity. The creamy black and white visuals are a dream and the performances are universally true and generous. The film is notable too however, for how Germi’s mise en scene interacts with Mastroianni’s performance, namely by employing two distinct (if broad) visual techniques which affect the actor’s work in different ways.
The first technique dominates the film and uses the cut to create meaning and tell the story. Here, Germi creates sequences where the camera starts on Mastroianni, then cuts to what he is looking at, then cuts back to Mastroianni. In turn, Mastroianni’s acting in these sequences is very basic, often little more than a look in the eye, or a drooped eyelid, or a twitched eyebrow – the cutting does most of the heavy lifting in terms of creating meaning. Germi employs these sequences prolifically when dealing with Mastroianni’s longing for Angela. During one scene set in a chapel, Mastroianni is singing hymns unenthusiastically; he looks, Germi cuts to Angela then back to Mastroianni and the idea of his longing is created. In another scene, Mastroianni is stood on his verandah at night, Germi cuts to a shot of a window through which we can see Angela lounging on her bed. These sequences are repeated in the street, at the beach and in the garden, speckling the early part of the film, all with the purpose of expressing Mastroianni’s longing for Angela.
This longing however, seems to come to an end when Mastroianni finally seduces Angela in the garden. Disaster strikes the very next day when Angela is sent away to a boarding school. It is from this point in the film that director Germi employs the second visual technique. He doesn’t do away with the cutting altogether, on the contrary, it continues to be the dominant technique of the film, but he inserts scenes where the shot is held for much longer, he pans with Mastroianni’s movements rather than cutting away from him. Further, it is during these scenes that Mastroianni’s performance becomes more elaborate and animated – the meaning of the scene is created by the actor. In one such scene, he bursts into his study, flying around it in a state of great agitation, while in voiceover we hear him trying to calculate how long he would spend in prison for murdering his wife. In another scene, he is so repulsed by his wife’s attempts to make love to him that he again storms into his study, this time to sleep, slamming his bed linen on the chaise-longue before drinking himself into oblivion. This angry, passionate man is very different to the repressed sad-sack seen earlier in the film. The point is however, these longer takes put the focus of the scene firmly on the actor’s performance, enabling the viewer to observe it’s detail, it’s poetry and so draw meaning from it.
Cutting is an effective means of creating a single, specific idea, while longer takes, draw attention to performance and so hi-light the character’s state of being.