An often underrated or simply overlooked figure of note in the history of Italian cinema, Pietro Germi had the misfortune to be labeled a "follower" of such seminal figures as Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and Cesare Zavattini in the annals of the most notable and studied movement within Italian film, neorealism. Simultaneously, he was castigated for not following the movement closely enough, seemingly indulging his fondness for Hollywood films and genre formulas, making crime films and Westerns at first and later specializing in comedy. As the "art cinema" distribution circuit grew in the 1950s and 60s, Germi was usually not deemed quite as distinctive or as idiosyncratic as the filmmakers who benefited most from such modes, namely Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Finally, Germi's work was often simply too popular in his native land to be taken as anything but enjoyably crafted fodder. It is true, of course, that some of Germi's hard-hitting dramas and his darkly satirical comedies were acclaimed internationally, so he is not an entirely unknown or unappreciated figure (his best known film, "Divorce Italian Style" 1961, even won an Academy Award). And one might argue as well that perhaps his oeuvre is not quite as great as that of some of his contemporaries. But what is equally true is that for some time Germi's work was too often considered for what it was not, rather than appreciated simply for what it was, outside narrow frameworks of comparative context. For this "craftsman" was also an artist with an arresting visual style and often ferociously expressed (whether dramatically or comically) thematic interests.
Germi held down a number of working-class laborer jobs before entering naval college. He eventually grew to dislike that line of work, and so entered the famous Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia to study acting, remaining an extra year to learn directing before moving on to write screenplays and serve as assistant director for such established filmmakers as Alessandro Blasetti. Germi attracted some attention within Italy with his very first directorial efforts, the nicely detailed thrillers, "Il testimone/The Witness" (1946) and "Gioventu perduta/Lost Youth" (1947). In at least one sense maybe some of his work seemed too detailed: censors objected to the meticulously enacted robbery scenes in the latter film, a tale of crime among alienated youths. The strong-featured and very forceful young filmmaker was also establishing himself as an actor in Italian film with a fine performance as a soldier in "Fuga in Francia" (1948), directed by Mario Soldati.
It was Germi's next film, "In nome delle legge/In the Name of the Law" (1948), however, that first attracted some degree of international attention. Its tale of a young judge who takes on the Mafia ended up, with its striking cinematography and use of landscape, as a kind of Italian Western, almost a predecessor to the films Sergio Leone would make in the 1960s. Indeed, this film, as well as the one that followed, "Il Cammino della speranza/The Road to Hope" (1950), another Sicilian-set film also dealing with a social theme (emigration), betrays more of a similarity to the work of John Ford, whose work Germi admired, than to some other neorealist work of the time.
Germi's interest in hard-hitting Hollywood genre films was echoed in subsequent work, including "The Brigand of Tacca di Lupo" (1952), another Fordian film pitting bandits again sharpshooters, and "Four Ways Out" (1951), a heist film in the same admirable vein as John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950). An early shot at satire came with the sexy and enjoyable "La presidentessa" (1952), with its cabaret star who becomes a potent figure in politics, but Germi's next major films came in the mid-50s with a gradual move away from the "little people" he had such fondness for and towards the struggle of the individual. His acute social observations had not dimmed, nor had his ability to handle melodrama and tragedy, as well evidenced by several films in which he powerfully played the leading role (as well as directing and writing, which he did on all his films). "The Railroad Man" (1956), dealing with a man whose family is falling apart and who eventually turns to being a scab strike breaker, and its companion piece, "The Straw Man" (1958), exploring the tragic after-effects of a married man's affair with another woman, were two of Germi's best films of the period in their naturalistic and dramatically driven scrutiny of masculinity in middle age.
Germi's ongoing interest in such issues as masculinity and the Italian cult of machismo, as well as the restrictive impact of outmoded laws and social customs, were foregrounded in the best-known works of his career, his scathing social comedies which emerged in the 1960s. "Divorce Italian Style" offered excellent work from Marcello Mastroianni as a man who, because of laws forbidding divorce, maneuvers his wife into committing adultery and then kills her into order to defend "his honor" but actually so that he can have another woman (Stefania Sandrelli). The huge international success of this film (including an Oscar for its screenplay as well as a Best Director nod) and its follow-up, "Seduced and Abandoned" (1963), dealing in brutally satirical fashion with a family's reactions to the deflowering of a daughter (Sandrelli again), enabled Germi to set up his own production company. Bourgeois gossip and double standards, meanwhile, were the target of one of Germi's best satires, "The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians" (1965), in which a loving and decent but unmarried couple encounter the scorn of a hypocritical community. Ironically, the more upbeat and sometimes even kindly approach towards his characters that Germi showed in his earlier films seemed to be less popular than the more vitriolic approach of his later work.
Germi continued mining this vein of approach in such later films as "The Immoralist" (1966) and "Serafino" (1968) right up to his last completed film, "Alfredo, Alfredo" (1973), with Dustin Hoffman as a shy clerk who must deal with a sexually rapacious woman. Germi's fondness for playful jokes and dramatic reversals was also evident in "My Friends" (1975), which would prove to be yet another huge box office hit. But it was not to be entirely Germi's film. He had written the screenplay, but died abruptly on the first day of shooting at age 60, leaving the film to be completed by his friend, admirer and talented fellow director Mario Monicelli, as well as bequeathing an appropriately volcanic oeuvre of skillfully rendered studies of character and the many strata of Italian society.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Served as assistant director and screenwriter for "Retroscena," directed by Alessandro Blasetti
Directed first feature film, "Il testimone/The Witness"
Early notable acting performance, as a solider in "Fuga in Francia," directed by Mario Soldati
International reputation first established with "In nome delle legge/In the Name of the Law"
First acted a role in a film he also directed, "The Railroad Man"
Had international hit with "Divorce Italian Style"; received Oscar for his contributions to the screenplay; also nominated as Best Director
In collaboration with L Vincenzoni, set up his own production company, RPA
Regularly acted as his own producer beginning with "The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians"
Directed last film, "Alfredo, Alfredo"
"Amici Miei/My Friends," written by Germi and which he was to have directed, was completed by his friend and fellow director Mario Monicelli