- Ravi Swami
"Alfredo Alfredo", Dir: Pietro Germi, 1972
Updated: May 20, 2022
The recent discoveries of Italian director Pietro Germi's films in the "Commedia all'italiana" genre and the actress Stefania Sandrelli prompted a search for other films and his 1972 film, "Alfredo Alfredo" caught my eye for the unusual casting of American actor Dustin Hoffman in an Italian language film and a pairing with Stefania Sandrelli.
The film is available in its' entirety on YouTube with English subtitles although it is actually dubbed with Hoffman providing his own voice and I generally prefer to watch films in their own language if possible since nuance and intended meaning can often get lost in translation - that being said it's not available on any streaming services other than possibly Amazon Prime.
I was expecting a comic romp along the lines of Germi's "Divorce Italian Style" where the typical Italian male is depicted as a rather pathetic character at the mercy of the wiles of often smarter women, so undermining their famous "machismo".
The themes of Commedia all'italiana, broadly speaking, seem to hinge on marital relationships and indeed, many of these films emerged in the immediate post-war years when the Italian legal system made divorce illegal under pain of imprisonment, so creating a situation where incompatible couples were bound for life and men sought extramarital affairs to alleviate the domestic problems they faced.
Women for the most part are portrayed as the victims of an oppressive patriarchal system where family honour is tied to their virginity and marital fidelity and where machismo is allowed free reign.
Under threat from the changing attitudes of women in the 60's and 70's, male characters in these films find themselves facing a situation where women no longer accept the subservient roles of previous generations and are no longer sexually repressed, and the comedy stems from this tension.
However, given the current climate of the "Me Too" movement, and where "Seduced and Abandoned" clearly placed Stefania Sandrelli's character as the wronged woman in the oppressive male-dominated environment of rural Italy and so eliciting our sympathy, by the early 70's and "Alfredo Alfredo", with its' cosmopolitan setting and portrayal of a sexually liberated woman (Sandrelli), there were moments where I found the film to be in danger of shifting audience sympathies towards Hoffman's timid bank clerk, "Alfredo Sbisà", with Sandrelli's character reduced to being a nuisance whose aim is either to exploit men or a "Bunny Boiler", ie as having a borderline personality disorder.
While this might be viewed as redressing the balance in the war of the sexes it instead becomes an excuse for machismo on the part of men.
An early scene where Alfredo, a serial womanizer and commitment-phobe who lives with his elderly widowed father, sees Sandrelli in the street and becomes obsessed with her to the point of following her down the street only serves to highlight a common experience of women, here made only slightly more tolerable by the use of Sbisà's internal monologue about his insecurities about dating women and his inability to commit beyond short-lived flings, so there is no implied threat.
The device of the monologue, which worked so well in Germi's earlier "Divorce Italian Style" in a manner similar to that of Dennis Price's character in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is used again by Germi and it would be interesting to see if this evolved into a recurring device in his later films in the genre.
Another aspect of the film is possibly one forced by commercial concerns and changing audience expectations in the area of portraying sexual relations on film by the 1970's. In "Seduced and Abandoned" a decade previously, more is implied rather than being explicit and yet we still feel outrage when Sandrelli's character is made pregnant by her sister's fiancé.
There are several bedroom scenes between Hoffman and Sandrelli that are surprisingly contemporary and verging on the burgeoning soft-core "Euro-Porn" industry of the 70's and 80's, and Sandrelli's later career is marked by several "sex-comedies" where she appeared naked or semi-naked, but as I've suggested before, she didn't fit the prototype of an earlier generation of Italian actresses and perhaps her portrayal of "Maria Rosa Cavarani" as a sexually aggressive woman who is looking for her match is altogether appropriate, despite the exaggerated performance that Germi draws from her - the match in this case just happens to be a timid bank clerk with a centre-parting, Alfredo.
It would be easy to dismiss Sandrelli's character as a "nymphomaniac" rather than as a woman who knows what she wants in the same way that Sbisà's best friend Oreste - another serial womanizer and "ladies man" - has an instinct for what attracts women, in contrast to Sbisà who is cautious and diffident in female company, added to which having expressed an interest in Hoffman's character over Oreste she cruelly tags him along and calls him when he is at work etc as their affair settles into series of torrid encounters that leave Sbisà exhausted to the point of breaking out in a skin rash.
Unable to shake off feelings of doubt about the relationship but still hopelessly besotted by the beautiful and impulsive Maria Rosa, Sbisà is invited to dinner by her parents and witnesses their boorish table manners as they greedily munch on fish-heads, but by now he is in too deep and upsetting her ex-military father might have disastrous repercussions.
Maria Rosa is not one to be trifled with however and the couple are eventually forced to tie the knot, with Maria moving into her husband's home where she proceeds to make demands so that she can enjoy marital life, something that eventually forces Sbisà's father to flee to his house in the country.
Germi extracts comedy from situations like a scene where Sbisà's sexual potency is in doubt and he has to visit a doctor to give a semen sample or a later scene where Maria Rosa is expecting their first child but which turns out to be a "phantom pregnancy".
The comedy of "Alfredo Alfredo" is obviously the improbable mismatch between Hoffman's nerdy Sbisà and Stefania Sandrelli's gorgeous Maria Rosa, something made clear at the very start of the film where Sbisà is attending a divorce lawyer meeting waiting for Maria Rosa to turn up, and the film is told in flashback in much the same way as in "Divorce Italian Style", but the joke wears thin by comparison to that film largely due to the fact that Maria Rosa is reduced to being a "type" in the same way that "Carolina Bettina", with whom he has an extra-marital affair to escape the demands of his sexually voracious wife is reduced to being a "type", in this case the reasonable woman who understands men and gets along with them, or simply as someone he is more compatible with.
Comedy is largely about reducing people to "types" so you could argue that this is simply part of a tradition that the audience understands but where "Seduced and Abandoned" has a mythic, timeless quality, "Alfredo Alfredo" is a comedy of errors that is perhaps relatable but is less satisfying than the earlier film, even if it is in essence a plea to remove the oppressive moral strictures placed upon the institution of marriage that lead to infidelity etc.
The film went on to win a Golden Globe in 1973 and U.S. National Board of Review nominee: Best Foreign Language Film, helped no doubt by the presence of Dustin Hoffman, one of several U.S actors tempted to work on Italian films of the period, most notably Robert Di Nero and Donald Sutherland in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Novecento / 1900".
Sandrelli would go on to appear in Bertolucci's "The Conformist", which is next on my watchlist of her films.
"Alfredo, Alfredo", Dir:Pietro Germi, 1972