William Urban: Memories of Sicily

The other night we were watching “Divorce Italian Style”, a famous movie from 1961 that neither of us had seen. I thought so, because I had seen so many Fellini movies, but I didn’t. But we knew the background – back then, but in fact not so long ago there was no divorce in Italy. The only way to get rid of your wife was to kill her.

It’s the plot, and the humor was partly the ridiculous schemes Count Cefalu went through to bring it to fruition, and partly the Sicilian customs that approved of his intentions. Marcello Mastroianni was brilliant as the bored husband, harassed plotter and desperate lover of his young niece.

We were able to follow the dialogues quite well, even if the subtitles remained essential (the key word is always mumbled or is in dialect). We were able to understand most of what was said and done thanks to having lived a year in Florence and having seen the forty episodes of Montalbano and the many episodes of Young Montablano. This series was about a young police commissioner from Rome, single but engaged to a pretty woman from Genoa who wanted him to leave Sicily and join her. But he had fallen in love with the island, lived right by the sea, and couldn’t imagine life without the wonderful food and friends.

‘The Italian Divorce’ also takes place in Sicily, which means it’s very different from what the same story would be in northern Italy, where Sicilians are considered uneducated subhumans. and rude people who take Catholicism seriously, sit outside at night to drink and sing, and turn to the mafia for help rather than going to the police.

A key passage in the film concerns the town’s reaction when La Dolce Vita is shown in the local cinema – the priest denounces the film and forbids anyone from attending, which means everyone came. The inside joke is that it was a Fellini film from the year before, starring Mastroianni as a giddy journalist following a movie star around Rome, witnessing all the depravity and lack of soul of the capital. Anita Ekberg was at her best as an actress totally lost and ignorant of life, drink and drugs. She found herself in the Trevi Fountain – which somehow had no crowds there – with Mastroianni asking her who she really was (in the currently popular philosophical sense, not what name was on her passport). In short, typically Fellini.

I remember Ekberg from the scene on the dome of St. Peter’s, where she looked around, puzzled, and asked, “Dove la Torre di Giotto?” I had gone to downtown Florence to see the film, and just then the crowded audience burst into laughter – Giotto’s bell tower was just down the street.

How the world has changed! When I was teaching Eastern Michigan University’s six-week summer program, our art historian was thrown into the Trevi Fountain by her exuberant students. It was for fun, but the Rome police weren’t amused! Since she did not stay for her trial, she could not risk being arrested again in Rome.

The crowds in Sicily were nothing like what we see locally (or even anywhere else in Italy) – men screaming, women crying, local authorities helpless. We might have thought the scenes were overdone, but we had seen a similar one in Cefalu (the town after which the Count’s family was named). We took a week’s vacation in January 1975, leaving the children with a family living in the Elizabeth Barrett Browning house, and took an overnight train to Palermo. There was almost an argument that we had booked top bunks, but once the boys saw Jackie they became very polite. Our two speaking good Italian made them friends.

When the train stopped in Cefalu, a group tried to pass a friend down the aisle, but could not. There were just too many people. So they opened a window to let him out. The complication was that he was in a cast from neck to toe and was screaming in pain all the time. The men were screaming, the women were crying and the train was waiting for the mission to be accomplished. Italy is great for its tolerance for emergencies, and when it comes to children, as the Count says in the film, “Bambini sono bambini”. They love children and spoil them to death, especially boys. (It’s a miracle that they become gentlemen.) It teaches them to think that all women will like them, and they know how to do that.

William Urban is Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.

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