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 lines down the middle of roads, and he is too tired to paint the lines straight: a wavering white line seen from a high angle tells the whole story. Desperate, he even tries male prostitution. Red flower in his buttonhole, he waits at a likely spot. A car pulls up, a rich-looking woman inside. He gets into the car, says it’s 20,000 lire, payable in advance. The woman says all right, and in a perfectly symmetrical gesture, they both hold out their hands to receive the money. It’s hard to think of a funnier, more intelligent image of what it means to compete for the same economic space. Yet in the same film a whore explains that she’s only doing it to support her poor mother and sister back home, and of course they must never know, and there is not a glimmer of irony within miles of this scene.

The agent of the slither out of comedy and poise in all the films except All Screwed Up is Wertmüller’s leading actor, Giancarlo Giannini, a swarthy exaggeration of what it means to look Italian. In The Seduction of Mimi he is abandoned in long shot in a vast sandy quarry; in Swept Away…, his idyll broken, he is restored to his wife, that is to say, to his old loneliness; in Seven Beauties, a survivor from a German concentration camp, he is about to be married, but he is alone with his humiliating memories; and in Love and Anarchy, as I have said, he is dead.

With the exception of this last film, where he is an innocent lost in the big world, Giannini really plays a single character in all these movies: the sympathetic rat, the rat with a heart. He is a good actor, but a limited one, and Wertmüller compounds and exacerbates his limitations by constantly nailing him in close-ups with the same expressions on his face: eyes narrowed, signifying conceit and calculation; eyes wide open, signifying surprise. He swaggers well as a minor mafioso in Seven Beauties, and he looks harrowed enough as the inmate of a camp trying (and finally managing) to screw the huge woman commandant, but it’s a broad and simple performance, played for all the obvious effects, and the final shot of the film, where Giannini is made up to look like Mastroianni, and wears Mastroianni’s look of worldly despair, is a fraud, entirely unearned. There is nothing in the character we have seen so far to suggest these depths, and indeed the movie itself doesn’t need, and won’t take, this dimension of meaning.


In Seven Beauties, Giannini is a cheap crook who has survived, and the implication, unexceptionable enough, is that cheap crooks make the best survivors. But Wertmüller wants it both ways, or even several ways: she wants to say that survival is not everything; that it is everything; and with a twist of logic that loses me completely, that Giannini’s groveling for survival has given him a new kind of dignity, because he knows how he has groveled. This final touch suggests, weirdly, outrageously, that betraying and even executing your fellow inmates in a camp, which is what the Giannini character does, is harder work than just dying yourself, since it leaves you with that suffering Mastroianni mask that closes the movie.

But as I say, the same sort of touch is found in Love and Anarchy, where the assassin is redeemed by his untimely and unseemly death; and even more strikingly in The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away…, where a political rat and a sexual rat, respectively, are to be let off because they are lonely and unhappy at the end. Giannini often looks like Chaplin—the resemblance is exploited in Seven Beauties—and I think what happens is that for Wertmüller he always represents the little man, an Italian, proletarian Charlot, and she can’t be tough on the little man, however he behaves. She admires him for hanging on and she pities him for missing out on everything that matters to his social betters. This looks like a horrible middle-class fantasy about the lower orders to me, a condescending double standard in ethical matters, and it is a far cry from Chaplin’s invention of a world from the bottom up. But whatever it is, Wertmüller’s films, apparently, can’t accommodate Giannini without forgiving him.

Wertmüller’s style alternates like her moods, only with rather more control, since it is marked mainly by sudden switches from long shot to close-up, with nothing in between. Life is either held off at a great distance or not held off at all. We are either spectators at the back of the grandstand or players deep inside the game. In Seven Beauties we watch, in long shot, through drizzling rain, as people line up before a group of armed German soldiers, undress, are gunned down, and tumble into a ditch. We then see Giannini and his friend, escaping Italian soldiers, running off, talking about why they did nothing to help. Giannini says he once killed a man, the camera tilts to the roof of the damp forest they are crossing, Neapolitan music, all mandolins and guitars, begins in the sound track, and in the next frame we are back, not only in Naples but glued to the fat thigh of a vaudeville dancer stomping heavily across a small stage as she sings. She has an Italian flag hitched round her broad behind.

It’s a very bold connection, since Wertmüller is linking not only present and past, death and vaudeville, Nazism and Fascism, but also genocide and farce, the stark, inhuman murders of the Germans with the folkloric killings of Italian comedy. The fat dancer is Giannini’s sister, who is dishonoring the family by sleeping around, and Giannini is soon, in this and subsequent flashbacks, to kill her lover, chop his body into small pieces, pack the pieces into three battered suitcases, and send them off on separate trains to different parts of Italy—an exploit for which he will become known as the Monster of Naples and, pleading insanity, get twelve years in a mental hospital.

Apparent distances close: butchery here and butchery there. This is the basic device of Seven Beauties, and it is very well handled. An anarchist in the concentration camp (where Giannini ends up after getting out of the hospital and into the army) pleads eloquently for a New Man to cope with the coming overpopulated times: not Mussolini’s orderly man but man in disorder, l’uomo nel disordine. Immediately in flashback we see Giannini in his particular disorder, trying to deal with the body of the man he has killed, unable for a while even to get it on to a table so he can swing his axe at it. The abstraction of the long shot is followed by the burlesque of the close-up.


The trouble with this style, and with Seven Beauties generally, is that although the transitions between times and perspectives and places are exciting and beautifully done, they are really transitions from nowhere to nowhere. The abstractions are too pure and the burlesques are too gross. Landscapes everywhere in Wertmüller are innocent and stately, while the people in them tend to be a mess—a noisy mess at the beginning of Swept Away…, for example, defiling a blue Mediterranean with their loud political chatter as they swim. Or to put that another way, Wertmüller’s settings are too beautiful—even the concentration camp is beautifully composed, a symphony of misty light and greenish uniforms, with the occasional hanged man strung up to create a tiny frisson—while her characters are too grotesque. The result is not tension or paradox or even contradiction, but a blur.

Above all, in Wertmüller’s as in so many other Italian films, apparently ethical judgments keep melting into aesthetic ones. Seven Beauties, like De Sica’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Bertolucci’s The Conformist, appears to confront the moral problems of Fascism but really only registers a distaste for Fascism’s style: its philistine failure to recognize the high culture of the Jews, in De Sica; its brutal imperial architecture and interior decoration, in Bertolucci; and in Wertmüller, its affinities with Nazism, represented by a taste for Wagner and the appointment of a mountainous and porcine Shirley Stoler as camp commandant.

Giannini screws Stoler as his passport to survival, and the scene is clearly a remake of the sequence in The Seduction of Mimi where Giannini, anxious to prove his virility, is engulfed by a vast and naked Elena Fiore, shot from behind with a distorting lens so that she (or rather her ass) looks like a recruit for an R. Crumb comic. But even if the scene were not a remake, exploiting what seem to me very ugly regions of sexual snobbery, its political implications would remain scant. A man will do anything to survive. But anything here simply means screwing a fat lady, getting it up in spite of your terror and aversion. That is heroism of a sort, no doubt, but we have only to substitute a beautiful and slender camp commandant for the large Shirley Stoler to see how offensively trivial a notion of heroism it is—not comic, merely sniggering.

Joan Didion once wrote (unjustly) that Bergman and Fellini had stunning visual intelligences, accompanied by a “numbingly banal view of human experience.” Wertmüller, like Bertolucci, has a stunning visual intelligence accompanied by a great confusion of mind, and this must be one of the sources of her immense popularity, both here and in Italy. Her movies always look good, they seem to be about things that matter, and they are finally so muddled that they put up no resistance to—indeed even invite—the most contradictory and admiring interpretations. One of the chief difficulties with Swept Away… is its consistent appearance of intelligence. It is a difficulty because the film is trying very hard to be stupid, and this is not as easy as it sounds if you’re an accomplished (but confused) director.

The plot—Wertmüller writes her own movies—concerns a rich bitch and a communist steward on her yacht. She annoys him by complaining about the coffee, the spaghetti, and the sweatiness of his shirts. They are then stranded alone together on an uninhabited island, and the surprise of the film is not that he should bully her and make her beg for food and sexual satisfaction, or that she should fall in love with him as a result, and want to stay on the island forever; or even that when they are rescued, he should want to go back to the island but she should lack the courage to go with him. The surprise is that Wertmüller should take so long with her story, since most of this is telegraphed in the first five minutes of the film, and all of it is clearly articulated in the first fifteen.

The rich woman, Mariangela Melato, appears on the deck of the yacht at night, her fair hair lit from behind by a lamp on the bow, blown out by the wind into a kind of luminous half-halo. Giannini, as the steward, sits on the deck and whistles a romantic tune as he gently strums his guitar. It is enough—more than enough—to establish a love affair, but the movie continues, in the next scene, as if nothing had happened: the rich lady and the poor lad, round two.

Again, arriving on the island, Melato says she is looking forward to a cup of coffee—iced, of course, This, like all her remarks, is delivered with great wit and charm, and one feels she knows what she is doing: parodying the spoiled rich bitch. Yet the whole sluggish movement of the plot calls for the real thing, not a parody. A moment or two later, Giannini, who has explored the island and found it to be deserted, shouts down from a high rock: “About that coffee. It’s going to be difficult.” It’s a good line, but people who talk to each other in this way, like people who have stared at each other on the deck of a yacht at night to the accompaniment of soft music, already have a relationship of some complexity going. The movie will have none of this, and roughly drops Melato and Giannini back into the allegory from which they had briefly emerged.

There is an interesting paradox buried in the plot: social revolution might well mean sexual reaction, since the poor are even more antifeminist than the rich. Giannini batters Melato about the island, and takes his revenge for every humiliation she has inflicted on him. But here as elsewhere, Wertmüller will not see the nastiness in the figure played by Giannini, and she exchanges her tough paradox for something far more retrograde and sentimental: the view that male dominance is all right, idyllic, even natural, if the male is poor and Sicilian and the woman is rich and likes being dominated.

Perhaps Wertmüller feels that all old scores, political and sexual, have to be paid off before the new utopia can begin; that Giannini can arrive at tolerance and love for Melato only after he has worked all his resentments out. But I’m driven to this suggestion by my distaste for what the movie seems to be saying, rather than by any conviction that the thought is really there. Swept Away…, I’m afraid, strands us in a strange and unpleasant spot: Charlot has turned into a wife-beating Tarzan, and we are supposed to like the new incarnation; to regret Tarzan’s return to civilization and his plump Sicilian wife.

The good moments in Wertmüller’s movies are always moments of abrupt, stylish flamboyance: the bold transitions I have already mentioned; a fast zoom in on to Giannini’s face in Swept Away… as his wife appears trotting along a dock after his return from the island; the encounter between Giannini and the man he kills in Naples in Seven Beauties, noisy, shouting music in the soundtrack, almost an impression of flamenco, a camera angle so low that it has the effect of ironic overstatement; the first appearance of a dandified crook in All Screwed Up, blond streak in his dark hair, a rose held up to his nose and a pained expression on his face—he is standing by while his underlings daub a car with shit, as a present for the commissioner of police.

But such moments will not carry a movie that is just marking time, like Swept Away…; and they are too slight to support the pretensions of Seven Beauties. In All Screwed Up, on the other hand, a film made just before the other two, they are exactly what is needed, elegant instruments of a very funny comedy about being poor in Milan. The harassed father I described earlier ends up hauled off to jail for his part in the planting of a bomb by a neofascist group. One of the two main characters in the film takes to crime; the other hangs on, hoping to marry the girl who won’t sleep with him until he rapes her. The girls in the movie, apart from the fertile mother of seven, save their money and plan for the future. They run the tenement apartment where the movie is mainly set, billing the men for their washing, and exacting a fee when they watch television. There are slithers into sentimentality even here, a frequent sense that poverty is not only a grinding plight but also a moral alibi, but generally this is a finely balanced film.

Literally finely balanced in one of its central scenes. The young man rapes his girl because she won’t marry him and won’t sleep with him until they are married, and because he is urged to it by a Sicilian friend—that’s the way they do things back home, he says. In the middle of a graceless scramble around a locked room, the new television set begins to fall, and the prostrate, still struggling girl is just able to catch it, to prop it up, but not to put it back on its table. A grin spreads over the man’s face as he realizes that the girl’s effective resistance is over, that the TV is more precious to her than her virginity, that she won’t let go and let the TV drop. Cut to man and girl sexually satisfied, and happy, but mournful too now about their future prospects, since they seem to have joined all their compatriots in thoughtlessness, too poor to get married and too impatient to wait.

I don’t like the apology for rape that is implicit in this scene, but I do think enough is going on here for several genuine questions to get an airing. Is it really better to get married and have kids and live in misery than to become a smart career girl, alarmingly sensible about the whole thing? Or vice versa? Indeed, why should people be confronted with such dehumanizing choices at all? All Screwed Up is a movie governed by honest sympathy and indignation, disciplined into wry laughter.

Visually, in its representation of a bustling modern Milan, in its contrasting of the tenement with upper-class interiors which are indecently comfortable and overloaded with knickknacks, the movie sustains its main theme; and even aurally, in its escalation of proverbially loud Italian quarreling into an expression of uncontrolled despair, it hangs together. And it ends on what is perhaps the most spectacular of all Wertmüller’s dashes of flamboyance. The hero, working in the kitchen of a large restaurant, surveying the aftermath of the violent breakdown of one of the cooks, thinks aloud that the whole thing should stop; that life, the world should start again, afresh. And everyone in the kitchen does stop, stands still, while the camera keeps moving, patiently patrolling the large, steamy room, taking in all the stationary cooks and waitresses.

I expected the film to end here, on a frozen frame, and I think we are invited to think this. Then a voice says there are customers in the restaurant, why are they all standing around, and gradually everyone goes back to work. The camera pans slowly round the kitchen, a full 360 degrees; and then pans again, faster; and then again, faster still, until the whole room flies past in a dizzy circle. All screwed up again: no one will stop the carrousel. And that is where the movie ends.

This Issue

March 18, 1976