All Mixed Up

Seven Beauties

directed by Lina Wertmüller

Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August

directed by Lina Wertmüller

All Screwed Up

directed by Lina Wertmüller

Lina Wertmuller
Lina Wertmuller; drawing by David Levine

There is a sequence in Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy which represents very well both the charm and the weakness of her films. A simple Italian country lad comes up to Rome to shoot Mussolini, oversleeps his cue for the assassination, and slaughters several carabinieri in a fury of regret. He tries to escape, but is caught, tortured, and killed. But he overslept because the girl who loves him, the heroine of the romance in a brothel which has taken up most of the movie, wouldn’t wake him; because she didn’t want him to sacrifice himself, because nothing, in her view, is worth dying for. She is warned that he will hate her for saving his life, and he does. Yet her girlfriend and colleague in the brothel, a devoted anarchist eager to wake the would-be killer, discovers that she too is really a woman at heart, and agrees to let him sleep.

The cliché lurking here is fairly staggering—women unscrupulously on the side of life, while men entertain noble, if silly, ideas and ideals, Sancho (or Sancha) in one corner and Quixote in the other—but Wertmüller appears to have it under control, and invites us to see the damage it can do, however we feel about it. The suggestion is less that the girl was wrong not to wake the hero than that whatever she did or didn’t do, there would be a mess. Beyond this, of course, the littered corpses of the carabinieri hint that things might not have been much better if the hero had actually managed to shoot Mussolini.

All this is strong, sardonic, and very funny. Yet Wertmüller simply throws it away by turning the hero into a martyr hounded to death by the Fascist authorities. The film ends with a quotation from Malatesta explaining that political assassinations don’t help, indeed usually serve the cause they were meant to harm, but that with the passage of time the acts of such assassins acquire a certain purity. What Wertmüller has done is to fake the passage of time. All humor and complication are gone, and we are to leave the cinema on this soft and sentimental note, firmly reassured about who the good guys really are.

In one form or another, this slither from tart comedy to easy piety and pathos occurs in all five of the Wertmüller films I have seen: Love and Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi, All Screwed Up, Swept Away…, and Seven Beauties. In All Screwed Up, for example, the question of overpopulation is introduced by the crisp hyperbole of a woman who has twins the first time she gives birth, and quintuplets the next. The father, trying to feed his seven sudden kids, takes a night job on top of his daytime work, and the quality of his life is beautifully rendered in a brief scene. His night job is painting white…

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