Lina Wertmüller is a bundle of contradictions: an avowed anarchist who was born into the rarefied upper strata of the Italian aristocracy, a feminist filmmaker unafraid to delve into realms of sexual grotesquerie many self-professed feminists would unhesitatingly anathematize. She imbues her films with the popular (and populist) traditions of commedia all’italiana, a style of humor that traces back to medieval puppet theater—a tradition she trained in extensively. Heiress to the filmmaking legacy of directors like Mario Monicelli and especially Pietro Germi, Wertmüller fuses together high-minded political seriousness and a gleeful delight in transgressive lowbrow comedy. Wertmüller also displays a fundamental fascination with the finely tuned communicative potential of bodily gestures and facial expressions, even when they’re expressed in flamboyantly histrionic and broadly comedic fashion, often employing as a result the kinds of extreme facial close-ups usually identified with the films of Sergio Leone.
After taking on political corruption and the Sicilian mafia with her first international success, The Seduction of Mimi, Wertmüller set her sights on the bad old days of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Love & Anarchy, a sort of costume tragicomedy that reunites the stars of the previous film, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Giannini plays Tunin, an ugly-duckling bumpkin who journeys to Rome in order to assassinate Mussolini after his friend, whose mission it was originally, is murdered by Il Duce’s secret police. Even though we witness the aftermath of this killing early on (what starts as a bucolic pan across a riverside idyll turns horrific when the shot ends on the image of a man’s body draped over low-hanging tree boughs), Wertmüller holds back until late in the film the reality behind Tunin’s motivation, that he’s nothing more than a hayseed out for revenge and in way over his head.
Once in Rome, Tunin ventures to a bordello run by Madame Aida (Pina Cei), ostensibly searching for his “city cousin,” Salomè (Melato), a blond sexpot who’s one of the most popular whores on the premises. She also happens to be part of a clandestine anarchist organization, under orders to shelter Tunin until his opportunity to shoot Mussolini arises. Most of the film’s action is thus confined to Madame Aida’s elaborately baroque brothel, much of its comedy arising from the ironic juxtaposition of the establishment’s classical sculptures and Old Masters reproductions with the opera buffa of its sexual escapades. Providing this operatic parallel, in fact, is an impeccably choreographed set piece that tracks the comings and goings of the girls and their clients from the vantage point of the salon where patrons gather to select their whore du jour, all set to a jaunty aria provided by composer Nino Rota.
Another standout scene plays like a scurrilous parody of the Last Supper (perhaps a sly nod to Luis Buñuel’s vitriolic masterwork Viridiana) as the courtesans gather for a communal meal, their profane banter laying bare each other’s often grotesque pretensions and peccadilloes with withering astringency. Not content to merely limn the ladies’ catty pettiness, Wertmüller extends the scene into a postprandial reverie, with some of the girls lolling around surfeited and sluggish, while one of their number sings a plaintive tune. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno lets diffuse light stream through the room’s lavender-tinted panes to set the scene ablaze with melancholy hues, as though sated lust had corroded into rust. An oddly timed change of pace that takes you somewhat off guard, the moment paves for the way (at least subliminally) for the darkening tone of the film’s final act. The sad, sultry singer is one Tripolina (Lina Polito), all sweetness and light compared to Salomè’s brash and open sexuality, with whom Tunin quickly falls head over heels.
Their relationship is cemented during one of the film’s few excursions outside the brothel walls, a day in the country at the invitation of Giacinto Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), head of Mussolini’s secret police and frequent patron of Madame Aida’s. Spatoletti is your prototypical fascist superman, preening over his sexual prowess, virulently contemptuous of anything that doesn’t gibe with Il Duce’s iron-fisted ideology. While Salomè obliges Spatoletti with a marathon fuck, Tunin woos Tripolina in the hayloft. Amusing as these scenes depicting Tunin’s fumbling courtship are, Love & Anarchy reaches its comedic fever pitch with Spatoletti and Tunin’s nighttime romp through Rome’s empty piazzas. The fascist goads and needles Tunin with his braggadocio, grown increasingly outsized until Tunin witnesses Spatoletti’s literal apotheosis, which finds him sprawled astride Zeus’s outstretched hand in one of the city’s many fountain sculptures. Before he finally loses his shit with Spatoletti, hurling a Chianti bottle at the proud fascist’s face, Tunin’s content to pay subservient lip service to drivel like “Better to live on your knees than die on your feet!” Little does he realize the irony that doctrine betokens for him.
Love & Anarchy concludes with another epic freak-out: the sort of flailing, squalling set-to Wertmüller clearly cherishes given the frequency with which they recur in her films. The two women in his life conspire to let Tunin oversleep on the morning of his big day, eliciting charges of betrayal and political disloyalty once he awakens. Panicked at the approach of troops and local police, Tunin’s plot unravels with startling rapidity as he recklessly confesses his traitorous intentions to a squad of carabinieri that stop in for a routine spot-check. Tunin suffers “interrogation” under Spatoletti’s supervision, and the beating only grows more vicious when all the prospective “martyr” will confess is a half-hearted “Long live anarchy!”
All Screwed Up, Wertmüller’s subsequent film, features a large ensemble cast and therefore lacks the obvious star turns of her earlier films. As a result, the narrative tends toward the disjointed and unfocused, shuttling between its various strands seemingly at random. Which isn’t to say there aren’t many strong scenes and hilarious moments, just to admit that they feel like precisely what they are: isolated instances that shine through the ramshackle, “baby with the bathwater” thrust of the film. With its polyphonic approach to the plight of newcomers (rubes from Southern Italy, most of them) adrift in the modernized metropolis of Milan, All Screwed Up comes across like Berlin: Symphony of a City as directed by Mack Sennett.
Wertmüller introduces good old boys Gigi (Luigi Diberti) and Carletto (Nino Bignamini) to Milan in an opening montage sequence that situates the duo in the midst of various street scenes that DP Rotunno films through long zoom lenses in order to achieve a documentary veracity, as the boys in their floppy hats play the fool for various city slickers, including a vignette where they get swindled into buying a stolen scooter. At the train station, the boys bump into a lost lamb, Adelina (Sara Rapisardi), who promptly starts bawling for her absent cousin, Isotta (Isa Danieli), who was supposed to meet her. Solicitous Carletto takes a liking to the young lass, whereas lothario Gigi soon develops a thing for go-getter Biki (Giuliana Calandra), a shop girl with her sights relentlessly set on upward mobility. The two couples eventually encounter sad-eyed Sante (Renato Rotondo) pining away for shop girl Mariuccia (Lina Polito, unrecognizable in a blonde wig and blue contacts).
After succinctly establishing these characters’ interconnected relationships, culminating in a carefree trip to an ice skating rink (an incident that presages Michael Cimino’s much-maligned Heaven’s Gate), Wertmüller sets about charting the downward spiral of their fortunes after they all move into a dilapidated apartment for an experiment in “communal” living. Under Biki’s expert tutelage, the girls figure out novel ways to nickel-and-dime their menfolk. Gigi and Carletto briefly get a job in a slaughterhouse, providing an apt correlative for the condition of the proletariat under modern capitalism, a connection Wertmüller renders explicit by cutting to a wage-dispute protest going on outside the abattoir. (Footage of the animals strung up, bled to death, gutted, and processed decidedly recalls Georges Franju’s poetic-realistic documentary Blood of the Beasts.)
All Screwed Up’s sexual politics come to the foreground in numerous scenes, ranging from Gigi’s pithy apothegm “Pussy has more pull than a tractor!” to Mariuccia’s unfortunate propensity for multiple-infant parturition, and her subsequent visit to a back-door abortion clinic. Most infamously, there’s the scene where Carletto, driven to the brink of frustrated carnal frenzy, seduces and rapes Adelina in the communal kitchen. (Rape, of course, is no new shakes in Wertmüller’s cinema, merely another quivering arrow in her sex-political quiver.) Staged like slapstick, the assault sees Carletto cunningly trap Adelina between sexual submission and the prospect of their new TV smashing to the floor, an inextricable knot of economic and erotic motivations.
The overarching moral of All Screwed Up seems to be that fresh-faced innocence, upon exposure to the moral rot of modernity, will inevitably give way to exploitation and its flipside, criminality. Theft and prostitution are the operative metaphors (and emblematic professions) for the contemporary human condition of urban anomie. Clothing this sociological treatise in the crazy-quilt of the harlequin, as was her wont, Wertmüller succeeds in weaving together an often brilliantly hued patchwork, scattershot though it may be.