The names of Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, Pasolini, Visconti, Bertolucci, de Sica etc. tower above the pantheon of Italian cinema. But there’s another filmmaker who should really be on that list, who should spring to mind as readily, who should be as well-known and as admired. That hasn’t happened because his work has, for some reason, been very hard to come by. In the past couple of years, though, five of his movies have crept into the DVD marketplace, mainly in Italy but with two coming out in the United States. So now, and not before time, we are getting to see the wonderful films of Pietro Germi.

His most famous and acclaimed work is Divorzio all’Italiana (Divorce Italian-Style, 1961), but all of the available films are terrific. There’s Sedotta e Abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964), which is just as scathing in its depiction of Italian masculine codes of honour and full of outrageous humour; while Un maledetto imbroglio (The Facts of Murder, 1959), is a glittering police thriller with as many twists in the tail as you care to count. Both are out on DVD in Italy. Then there’s Il ferroviere (The Railroad Man, 1955), recently released in the US under its English title by NoShame Films. And just out in Italy is La città si difende (Four Ways Out, 1950), a heist movie featuring Gina Lollobrigida. Any one of these amply displays Germi’s acute sense of cinematic style and his ability to tell complex stories in a very appealing, entertaining way. As screenwriting collaborator Furio Scarpelli says of him, ‘He didn’t just film the screenplay – he celebrated it.’

Germi was also an actor, both for other directors and in some of his own films. He plays the railroad man, Andrea Marcocci, a husband and father whose train one day hits a man crossing the track. Marcocci seeks refuge more and more in drink, which affects his work. He alienates his colleagues when he crosses a picket line, and his family life begins to come apart – all of this narrated by the youngest child, Sandro (Edoardo Nevola). Il ferroviere is a melodrama, a tragedy, even – but it is a joyous experience because of the beauty of the acting, the confidence of the mise-en-scène, and Carlo Rustichelli’s emotional score.

‘He didn’t just film the screenplay – he celebrated it.’

Rustichelli, who died only last year, scored many of Germi’s films, including Un maledetto imbroglio. Although the Italian disc has no English subtitles, it still comes highly recommended because the movie is so seductive and entertaining. It begins languidly with a haunting song which seems to say to the audience, ‘You are entering a wistful tale of human failing.’ This is intriguingly contrasted with the dynamic acting by Germi, as the chief investigating officer, and Saro Urzì as his sidekick. Such a contrast can be found running throughout Germi’s work – the melancholia of so many hearts left wanting by life, and the sheer exuberance of telling stories for the cinema.

This exuberance reached its apex in Divorzio all’Italiana, a model of comedy and cinematic precision, and surely one of the best-written movies ever. It began life as another drama but, as co-writer Ennio de Concini has pointed out, Germi realised that by taking the tragic events and making them even more tragic, he could turn them into superb comedy. Baron Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni) is bored with his wife (Daniela Rocca) and in love with his teenage cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). Under Italian law at the time, divorce is illegal, but if a man discovers that his spouse is cheating on him, he can kill her in defence of his honour and receive only a brief jail term. So the Baron sets out to find a lover for his wife…

Divorzio has been released three times on DVD, first by US company Hen’s Tooth, then by the Italian arm of Twentieth Century Fox, and most recently by Criterion. The Hen’s Tooth transfer is no more than adequate, but it’s the only release which contains the American credit sequence – complete with very sixties-style cartoons – and it was thanks to Hen’s Tooth that I was first able to see this movie. The Criterion and the Fox both have terrific transfers – the Criterion is slightly sharper, but the Fox does a bit more justice to Germi’s brilliant whites (he resisted colour up until Signore e Signori in 1966, and his use of monochrome really conveys the searing heat of the Sicilian landscapes and towns).

Among the various DVD extras are two lengthy documentaries: Pietro Germi – A Classic On Its Own (on NoShame’s Railroad Man disc) and L’uomo dal sigaro in bocca (The Man with the Cigar in his Mouth), unsubtitled on the disc of Un maledetto imbroglio but happily translated on Criterion’s release of Divorzio…. These pieces consist largely of interviews with various filmmakers who collaborated with Germi or who simply admire him, among them screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who co-wrote two Germi films, directors Mario Monicelli and Giuseppe Tornatore, actress Stefania Sandrelli, composer Rustichelli and many more.

‘His films were popular and so couldn’t be considered art-house but they were too cutting and socially conscious to be truly mainstream’

What emerges from their anecdotes and testimonies is a difficult, blunt man, feared by many for his temper, but a filmmaker who earned respect and affection for his integrity and his talent. How can you not like someone who chose to live in a seventh-floor Rome apartment in a building without a lift so that he would be forced to keep fit climbing the stairs every day? Germi, it seems, was darkened by his difficult relationships and by his exacting way of living and working. He was not patient with child actors (although he got very appealing, natural performances from them) and he intimidated his co-writers by remaining silent for stretches of time while they talked themselves blue – like some scene out of Persona. Yet people are now inspired to speak of him with great enthusiasm and fondness.

Also from these interviews we get a sense of why he has been sidelined by critics and by film history. For starters he didn’t fit easily into any particular category or pigeon-hole. Although his roots (like those of so many Italian directors of his generation) lay in neo-realism, he very quickly moved on to a more elegant, fluid cinema which sought to portray the world not through ‘realist’ means but through the stylizing of emotional and sociological truths. His films were popular and so couldn’t be considered art-house but they were too cutting and socially conscious to be truly mainstream. And as Germi didn’t align himself with any particular politics, he bewildered critics on both the left and the right.

He has also become something of a victim, in career terms, of his own early death in 1974, aged sixty, just as he was embarking on Amici Miei (eventually directed by his friend and contemporary Mario Monicelli). Had Germi died ten years earlier, his commedie all’italiana would have been his crowning achievement; whereas had he lasted, his longevity might have ensured his reputation. As it is, he slipped away as Italian cinema itself came down from heady decades of international success, and it has taken this long for his films to be readily available again. Hopefully there’s more to come: In nome delle legge (In the Name of the Law, 1948), a ‘Western’ set in Sicily; Signore e Signori, which won the Cannes Film Festival in 1966; Un uomo di Paglia (A Man of Straw, 1957), with another acclaimed lead performance from Germi; L’immorale (1967) with Ugo Tognazzi; and Alfredo, Alfredo (1971) with Dustin Hoffman – these all sound particularly enticing. Meanwhile, we have five of his movies available on DVD. It really is a cause for celebration.