Reviving an Eccentric Italian Outsider


One of Italy’s most successful directors during his lifetime, known in these parts mostly for his witty black comedy Divorce-Italian Style, Pietro Germi has been practically forgotten since his death in 1974. He’s getting a proper hearing at last: 11 of his 19 features are on view at this New York Film Festival retro. Germi’s career falls somewhat neatly into two parts. Although not strictly neorealist, his early films were typically social dramas, dealing in contemporary issues of postwar Italy; later, he turned away from dramatic themes-from Divorce-Italian Style (1961) on, his films are largely satiric, often bitter comedies. Gruff and unsociable to the point of eccentricity, Germi was a conservative Social Democrat, unapologetically anti-Communist in an industry where his colleagues were largely left-wingers or committed Marxists. His most ardent supporter was Fellini, who collaborated with the director on the screenplays of four early films.

In the Name of the Law (1949), the first of these, was the movie that would earn Germi a place in the front rank of Italian filmmakers. It concerns the clash between a young judge and the Mafia in a Sicilian village. Visually stunning, the picture’s sumptuous imagery evokes the West of John Ford.

In The Railroad Man (1956), a somber and richly detailed study of a year in the life of a dysfunctional working-class family, the director plays the lead-an
alcoholic, rough-handed patriarch; his youngest son adores him, and we see the story through the boy’s eyes. Moppet actor Edoardo Nevola steals the movie-it’s one of the great kid performances in European cinema. Like most of Germi’s films, Railroad Man runs on too long, but it’s arguably his finest picture, more than a cut above several of his later, better-known works.

The irresistible Divorce-Italian Style, the first international smash hit of Germi’s career, garnered a best original screenplay Oscar. Martin Scorsese, one of its biggest fans, sees the film as a profound influence on his own work, Goodfellas in particular.

Germi’s final movie, Alfredo, Alfredo (1972), a limp sex comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, was trimmed by 15 minutes for its American release at the star’s insistence. The print on view at the Reade is the complete director’s cut-a local premiere, of sorts.

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