This film is a pitch-perfect satire of male chauvinist culture. The photography is wonderful, the plotting is hilarious, and Marcello Mastroianni is simply fabulous as the smug, morally corrupt, defunct aristocrat in a Sicilian backwater.
The Baron lives in a decrepit palace that he shares with his wife and another branch of the family – the rest of the building is unused because they haven’t the money to keep it up. His father is a filthy minded gambler, his wife is a voluptuous, dark-haired southern woman (they all have faint moustaches) who is childishly and effusively loving.
He despises her now, having married her in a moment of weakness brought on by her marvelous hips. He is lustfully infatuated with his sixteen year old first cousin, a fair-skinned blonde vision of loveliness. On a family outing to the beach, he takes a break from the sun to retreat to a flowery glade where she is gathering blossoms. It is their first loving encounter – the cool, lush hollow makes a stark contrast to the blazing sun and white sand where the families remain. Is it real, or a dream?
Divorce is not legal – the baron’s only recourse is murder. He dreams of liberation from his fawning spouse, and hatches a plan to lure her into adultery with a long-lost admirer who returns as a professional
art restorer at work on the palace. A local trial of a woman who shot her adulterous husband gives him the idea – crimes of passion and of honor are approved in his world. The woman, she is a woman after all, was given only eight years. Certainly, he will get off lightly with less than three: after all, he is a man, an aristocrat, and he has a college degree! The defense lawyer was marvelous: he will be sure to retain him.
The ironies of the presentation are many-layered. We know that the baron is a selfish and corrupt brute, despite his slick exterior, but we can’t help rooting for him as he plots his crime. His wife and her silly lover are so stupid and absurdly melodramatic, not to mention the fact that the lover is a philanderer with a family and that he can’t keep away from the palace serving girl.
We watch the story from several points of view: the neutral camera view; the baron’s point of view, guided by his self-serving narration; and the point of view of the male-dominated local culture, expressed in the soaring melodrama of the defense attorney’s speech which the baron hears in his head as he executes his plot. The bombastic legal schtick is a brilliant counterpoint to the limp but determined evil character of the baron. The lawyer’s script is balanced by the sermons of the local priest who unctuously reasons out why the congregation must vote for the Christian Democrats: democracy + Christ – spokesman everywhere reinforce the oppressive status quo. The oppressive heat is a visual metaphor for the suffocating power of social convention.
The baron’s planning is given a luck break when Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita, comes to town. The entire population buys tickets to see the orgiastic cinema spectacular, but his wife does not wish to attend. Aha! She will have a tryst with her foolish lover, and the baron can catch them in the act, shoot her, and be done with it! Of course, Marcello Mastroianni is the star of the movie, lending a delicious self-referential irony to the entire affair – we never see him on
screen, that is, not in that movie, on this screen! The stolid audience is not impressed by the hifalutin antics of Fellini’s cinema. Things are very simple down there in Sicily. People are more impressed by another sort of spectacle, such as that trial of the woman who shot her husband. The defense attorney entrances them…
There are many little touches of humor and irony throughout. A favorite of mine is when the baron finds his wife’s cache of mementos from earlier days, souvenirs of her romance with the artist. We see his imaginings of their affair, a photo shoot in some ancient ruins. He examines the picture: It’s terribly blurred! What an awful photographer! What kind of a souvenir of love is that? Just what sort of evidence…is…this?
The baron gets his wish, it all works out for him. His wife dead, a short stint in prison, and a wedding to his delectable cousin. He’s all set up to be a cuckhold, for real, this time!