I don't have much history with mid-century Italian comedies, but the two I've seen so far — Dino Risi's Il sorpasso (1962) and now Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style (1961) — have much in common, which I assume now are defining characteristics of the genre known as Commedia All'italiana: a mix of broad characterizations with wry humor about Italian culture & society, a deeply cynical sense of opportunistic morality, and shocking endings that challenge expectations set by otherwise light tone.
In Divorzio all'italiana, Marcello Mastroianni stars as the Baron of a profligate aristocratic family in a podunk Italian village. Infatuated with his young cousin (Stefania Sandrelli), and annoyed by his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), the Baron considers his only option for getting out of a marriage in such a staunchly Catholic country: murder. When he determines that the penalty for murder is too extreme, he plots to find his wife a lover and catch her in the act, giving him a much better chance at a lenient sentence.
I suppose that younger audiences today might find Divorce Italian Style mired in misogyny, from Rocca's homely makeup (light mustache and considerably thicker uni-brow), to the whimsical depiction of 1961 Italy's lopsided adultery laws, to the objectification of a young girl, to the unexpectedly direct climactic events, and the final kick in the epilogue. Add to the blithe sexism the age difference between characters — the Baron is nearly 40 courting a teenage girl (Sandrelli was 14 years old at the time of filming) — and you have a stew of what humorless critics today call "problematic." All that aside, Divorzio all'italiana is quite fun.
Mastroianni gives a delightful performance as a weak-willed heel who thinks of himself as a Marcello Mastroianni-type (and Germi even has some fun later on putting Mastroianni's character at a screening of La Dolce Vita). Without a doubt, George Clooney has studied this arch Mastroianni turn and modeled some of his own comic performances after it, including Mastroianni's scurvy little mouth twitch. It's pretty enjoyable watching such a suave actor dig into a derelict hollowed-out imitation of himself, and Germi's movie depends greatly on Mastroianni's skill at keeping the audience interested in such a louse as he pursues his scurrilous plan.
Divorce Italian Style isn't the kind of movie that is going to evoke an emotional response, but it manages to engage solely on the strength of that lead performance, an overall comic energy, and some strong visuals from a young Carlo di Palma, who shares cinematography credits with Leonida Barboni. There's a nice recurring gag involving the Baron's sister and her fiancee, some vivid dark fantasy sequences, a few ravishing moments of longing, and an interesting glimpse at Italian notions of cuckoldry and public shame. Screenwriters Germi, Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti (who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) carefully avoid any moralizing that would undermine their morbid sense of narrative inevitability. Maybe today the blunt ends of Commedia All'italiana play a little too simplistically — although this also gives them some additional shock value — but they can still be appreciated for their boldness within their own time.