Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Alfredo, Alfredo

This 1972 Pietro Germi comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman and Stefania Sandrelli as Alfredo and his “awful wedded wife” is never less than entertaining but doesn’t quite match the standard of the director’s earlier Divorce Italian Style, which also starred Sandrelli.

The film’s weakness, compared to its predecessor, is that everything doesn’t quite come together. The issue is not so much the change of setting, from an aristocratic Sicilian milieu to a bourgeois northern Italian one, nor the shift from 1960 to 1970, but what these in turn mean for the narrative.

In Divorce Italian Style, the all’italiana aspect referred to the possibility of Alfredo’s predecessor, played by Marcello Mastroianni, forcing his wife into an adulterous situation so that he could then kill her in a crime of passion, receive a light prison sentence and remarry.

Here the situation is inherently less grotesque and comic, with the film opening and closes with divorce proceedings before a magistrate.

Most of Alfredo, Alfredo, however, is told in flashback, splitting neatly into three acts of 30 minutes or thereabouts. Acts one and two come across as one film, a comedy, act three another, a drama.

The first act focuses on Alfredo (Hoffman) and Mariarosa’s (Sandrelli’s) courtship and culminates in their marriage. The second sees Alfredo realise what Mariarosa is actually like and culminates in her phantom pregnancy.

They work better than the third act, in which Alfredo meets Carolina and the focus shifts to the political urgency of reforming Italy’s antiquated divorce laws.

The presence of Dustin Hoffman as Alfredo is also something of a sticking point at times: It is not that he cannot play the role, which is close enough to being an Italian variant on the nebbish – just as Mariarosa’s overbearing mamma could equally be recast in Jewish terms – more that it doesn’t allow for much use of his famous method. (“Try acting... it's much easier!” as Laurence Olivier apocryphally commented to Hoffman, after he had deprived himself of sleep in order to better convey his character’s exhaustion in Marathon Man.)

Much of the time he is reacting more than acting, while the majority of his lines are delivered in voice over rather than to the other performers. This said, use of the device is appropriate to both Alfredo’s diffident nature and the retrospective narrative: A lot of the time Alfredo is, after all, commenting upon what he should have said or done at the time but did not. Moreover the device, like its use in Divorce Italian Style – with its brilliant closing words and images – imparts an additional degree of irony to the proceedings, insofar as there are still moments when Alfredo perhaps still doesn’t get it.

Stefania Sandrelli is brilliant as ever, while the supporting cast, including Alfredo’s father and his best friend, Mariarosa’s equally controlling parents are perfect in their roles.

The humour is perhaps also cruder than in Divorce Italian Style, with Mariarosa screaming whenever she has an orgasm and loudly breaking wind as she gives birth (fans of the TV series The Young Ones may see similarities with the ‘Cash’ episode where Vyvyan becomes pregnant).

There’s also a thought-provoking moment when Alfredo is sent to see the doctor to determine whether he is infertile: Is masturbation acceptable within Catholic doctrine if it is performed to determine whether one is capable of going forth, increasing and multiplying? If one is not, then does that mean masturbation is now okay as viable seed are not being spilt? Answers on a postcard to…

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