- Ravi Swami
"The Magnificent Cuckold", Dir: Antonio Pietrangeli, 1964
It's probably fair to say that I've become a little addicted to "Commedia Al'Italiana" as I discover the vast output of the genre, in the process uncovering some little-known classics and discovering actresses like Stefania Sandrelli and directors like Antonio Pietrangeli.
They are for the most part lightweight "sex comedies" on the surface but often reveal the shifting balance of power between the genders in the post war period and continued being made well into the 1970's and 80's, by which time what was not permissible a decade or so earlier for an essentially adult, metropolitan audience, had relaxed into something approaching soft-core pornography.
Antonio Pietrangeli's promising career was cut short by an early death and "The Magnificent Cuckold" (Italian: "Il Magnifico Cornuto") is possibly typical of the films he directed in the Commedia Al'Italiana genre.
Many of these films can be found on Amazon Prime and if you fancy splurging a few quid they promise a pleasant hour or so of sharply observed "Comedy of Manners".
Of course the other draw is the cast, primarily Claudia Cardinale, with support from Ugo Tognazzi, playing her hat magnate husband, and a host of other actors who may be recognisable from other films both Italian and international - for example, Michèle Girardon, a French actress, makes an appearance in Éric Rohmer's 1963 film "La Boulangère de Monceau" ("The Girl at the Monceau Bakery").
As the film's title suggests, the rather thin plot concerns "Andrea Artusi" (Tognazzi), a hat magnate, and his beautiful, young wife "Maria Grazia" (Cardinale), whom he suspects of having an affair after it is revealed that Andrea has been himself seduced by "Cristiana" (Girardon), the wife of one of Andrea's wealthy business associates, the irony being that he doesn't feel that he has personally breached his marriage vows, being a man, but the thought that his wife may be doing the same soon develops into an obsession.
The comedy arises from Andrea's increasingly bizarre behavior as he is mentally tortured by his suspicion - is Maria Grazia carrying on with "Gabriele", (Paul Guers) the suave and handsome antique dealer that she spends an inordinate time with ?...or is it someone else ?..or worse, is it many men and under his very nose ?
In the meantime he continues his liaisons with Cristiana in a suburban hotel that she uses for her dalliances in the full knowledge of her husband.
While watching the film I was struck by how the similar the tone was to some Hollywood films of the era - for example, it's no stretch to swap Tognazzi for Jack Lemmon and Cardinale for perhaps Shirley Maclean, and indeed the Hollywood film "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), and which starred Jack Lemmon, feels very much like it was inspired by the genre in theme and tone, though there's no doubt that the Italian films were also influenced by earlier Hollywood "sex comedies" - it also stars the Italian actress Virna Lisi, which hints at more than just a hat tip to the genre.
As well as shining a light on a certain strata of Italian society of the time - the newly wealthy and petit aristocrats in the boom years of Italian post-war reconstruction, a theme that runs through the Commedia Al'Italiana genre - the plot also highlights the dilemma's faced by rich older men who take younger wives, and is a trope that has a long history in literature and theatre, besides changing attitudes to sex and marriage in the 1960's.