Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Let's Talk Honour Killings

That's like one topic we haven't discussed yet:)
And no, I don't mean "extremism" of any kind, as I will be discussing a movie. It just appeared to me that I haven't done any movie or book reviews for a considerable time, so here comes:

Divorce Italian Style is a 1961 film starring Marcello Mastroianni, and its genre is listed as comedy. Wikipedia says it's based on a novel literally called Honour Killing. To me, it came across as a satire on the Italian society of that period and a subtle way to push the legalisation of divorce as a civilised way out of an unhappy marriage.

The main character Ferdinando Cefalu is a caddish Sicilian nobleman in his late thirties/early forties whose family lost most of their fortune (some of it to an unscrupulous man who married his aunt) and who is married without children to a woman he detests. Her main fault is that she's getting older, just as himself, and less attractive. He's lusting after his young cousin Angela (the daughter of the aunt mentioned above) who is home on vacation from a Catholic college. He discovers that Angela cares for him, too, and decides to get rid of his wife Rosalia, but the only way to do it is to kill her.

He gets inspiration from a  criminal trial happening at the same time, where a woman is being prosecuted for murdering her boyfriend (Wikipedia says "husband", but I'm not so sure) who ditched her.  Ferdinando discovers that according to the laws of his time, honour killings tend to carry rather light sentences (3 to 7 years, and every 3 years there is an amnesty) and decides to set up his wife with another man.

He finds an ideal candidate in the person of her former sweetheart, the godson of a local priest, who was thought missing in action but later came back and became a painter, by the name of Carmelo. He invites Carmelo to work on a restoration of the ceiling paintings of his palace and encourages him and Rosalia to spend as much time together as possible, with predictable consequences. The happy couple finally elope, leaving Ferdinando and his relatives open to the derision and insults of their neighbours as the whole family is now dishonoured.

During a funeral, Carmelo's wife arrives and spits into Ferdinando's face for presumably being such an unmanly coward and not confronting his adulterous wife. After this, the local mafia boss procurers the lovers' address and Ferdinando goes after them. He arrives just in time to meet with Carmelo's wife who has just murdered her husband, and as you may have guessed, his wife in next in line.  Ferdinando gets 3 years in prison, comes home a hero, marries Angela and gets a huge dowry. He's very proud of his achievement, not noticing that the wife who is 22 years his junior, is unfaithful behind his back...

I'm not sure whether Ferdinando was meant as a sympathetic character or not, as to me he came across as a total egoist whose callous actions ruined the life of several people around him; and I'm not going to comment on the morality of the concept of honour killings, but there were some things which I found interesting and would like to talk about.

First, the movie shows that European (or at least, Southern European) society was extremely conservative as far as the 1950s. Men and women were pretty much separated socially, as in the beginning men are shown dancing with each other. Women chiefly stayed home. Sexual misconduct of any kind was viewed as dishonourable and the whole family partook of the shame it brought. Ferdinando' s sister is engaged and her fiance dumps her after the scandal, but marries her in the end, after her brother "restores his honour."

Young girls, especially those of "good families" were carefully guarded, and such things as "virginity tests" were by no way uncommon. Higher education was still segregated and girls weren't allowed to even talk to men in the streets. When Ferdinando and his family take a trip to the beach, they are all (including men) fully closed, though later when he is already married to Angela, they are both shown in swimming clothes on his yacht, which either suggests that the times are changing, or simply that there they have more privacy.

Another thing is that this understanding of honour was by no means class or sex restricted as both men and women, rich and poor agreed to it. There is a rather funny scene when a communist speaker comes to town and tries to use Rosalia's elopement as a way to preach emancipation of women. He asks the townsfolk what they think of her and they all shout: "Whore!" Women, too, don't take the abandonment lightly. The woman who murdered her boyfriend gets wide support and all women shout that they would do the same to the cheating bastard. In short, the movie portrays a world totally alien to us moderns and perhaps, all the more fascinating because of it.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in various European traditions, if you can find it.The one version currently on YouTube is in Italian, unfortunately. It was on TCM,  here is a clip with English subs.

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