Divorce, from the Eyes of Children

On a film in which the children do not 'accompany' their wayward parents

Ex ore infantium comes from Psalm 8:3, “from the mouths of babes and infants.” I was reminded of that phrase recently while watching a perhaps unfairly neglected movie from 1965, “The Battle of the Villa Fiorita.”

The film, starring Maureen O’Hara and Rossano Brazzi, is based on a book by the same name by the English writer Rumer Godden. Godden’s most famous novel was In This House of Brede (1969), about an English woman who becomes a Benedictine nun. Godden, who converted to Catholicism in the last third of her life, frequently incorporated religious and spiritual themes into her works. That has piqued my interest enough that I am slowly making my way through her work. One thing I find intriguing about her works — at least right now — is their very feminine dimension. Godden focuses on the religious experience of women, which frequently has a strong emotional component to it. Perhaps it’s not politically correct to note that, but it seems to be a prominent feature of the female religious experience. That struck me clearly almost a decade ago when Fr. Marian Zawada, a Polish Carmelite, published a two-volume collection, Antologia mystiki polskiej [An Anthology of Polish Mysticism]. Volume I featured male mystics, volume II female. The differences were palpable, the most distinct feature being the strong prominence of emotional categories among the female mystics. The male mystics often tried to “explain” their experience in “rational” categories; the women let the emotional experience speak for itself.

And that emotional passion, refracted through a religious lens, has a counterpart in Godden’s writings.

So, what does that have to do with babes and infants and “The Battle of the Villa Fiorita”? Let’s look at the plot of the film.

Moira (O’Hara) is a Protestant Englishwoman who abandons her husband, Darrell, for an Italian composer, Lorenzo (Brazzi). Lorenzo is nominally Catholic but not bothered by what his faith actually teaches about marriage. Moira packs up and flies off to Italy to move into Villa Fiorita, Lorenzo’s house. Darrell, a minor character in the film, seems ready to acquiesce in the situation. Michael and Debbie, their children, do not. They steal off on their own to Italy and show up at the Villa Fiorita, intending to bring their mother back to her senses and back home.

At first, Lorenzo tries to pack them off on a flight back to London, unsuccessfully. He then tries his version of “The Brady Bunch,” bringing his daughter, Donna — slightly older than Michael and Debbie — to try to get everybody to “bond.” Donna, on Catholic principles, wants no truck with the situation. Eventually, Donna and Debbie go on a hunger strike, demanding their parents break up. Various twists and turns occur, eventually leading to Michael and Donna escaping in the family boat in the middle of a storm and almost tragically dying. That reality brings Moira to her senses and, while it’s apparent she regrets her departure, the movie ends with Moira, Michael, and Debbie bound for the Milan airport and a flight back to England.

“The Battle of Villa Fiorita” is almost sixty years old. A lot has happened in that time. In 1965, the idea of “no-fault divorce” — the ability to break up a marriage absent any serious grounds like adultery or physical abuse — was still in the future. In the ensuing decades, the rise of “no-fault divorce” produced an explosion in the divorce rate. Part of the collateral damage of that phenomenon has been the marginalization of marriage, losing its status as “the normal adult relationship” for most people and as distinct from and better than other forms of concubinage or even less demanding “relationships.” In that process, adults who act like children have managed to talk themselves into the illusion that children are actually “better off” when parents divorce, that kids are “resilient” and prosper when their parents are “happy” and less “conflictual.”

The social science data — especially the work of Judith Wallerstein — dispels the truth of these claims. Myths, however, tend to persist — especially when they buttress what supposed “adults” want to do sexually.

That’s why this film made an impression on me. It looks at divorce and especially remarriage from the eyes of children. And it does not bleat about “resilience” and how much “better off” the children will be.

What fuels the kids is especially interesting. Debbie is the most emotional: she wants her Mummy back with her Daddy. Michael deep down feels the same but he’s a boy, aspiring to be a “grown up,” and inculcated with the “stiff upper lip” of a Brit, so at first he’s willing — like his passive dad — to acquiesce in the status quo. Because Debbie won’t, and he feels some responsibility for her as an older brother and also wants Mum back, he goes along. Donna isn’t so emotional about things, at least overtly, but she believes in her faith and so believes what her father and their mother is doing is mortally sinful. It’s a touching blend of tactics: at first, Donna plans to fight the remarriage with her Rosary. Debbie suggests tacking on child psychology (in the sense that kids, whose primary job is to observe their parents, know all those parents’ buttons), insisting nothing freaks out parents more than a child that won’t eat. Donna joins the hunger strike. Debbie, having seen Donna go to confession, find she also needs spiritual succor and finds her way to town to ask the priest’s help. The parents are tough nuts to crack but, in the end, the crack caused by fear of losing a child becomes the crevice through which grace and love seep to change the situation — even if it’s a change not wholly embraced feelings-wise. It’s the will that gets Moira into the car to go home, and that’s what matters.

I’m told the film takes some liberties with the book from which it came; I still need to read the latter. That said, “The Battle of the Villa Fiorita” offers a different take on a commonplace current problem, one in which the children do not “accompany” their parents in an “irregular relationship” but toward home where they belong. It’s worth the watching.

The film is available for rental or purchase at Amazon Prime Video. Perhaps a weekend “date” movie?

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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