Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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The Lina Wertmüller Collection

Five films about sex, slavery and economics

On DVD from Koch Lorber

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    At first glance, the new Lina Wertmüller Collection on DVD from Koch Lorber prompts the question: where are The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973) and All Screwed Up (1974)? Their absence from the set is alarming, especially for those of us who remember Lina’s golden moment in the mid-‘70s when the pictures played for months on end, from the major cities to suburbia. Her time was hot and fierce but short, culminating in Swept Away (1974) and especially Seven Beauties (1975) with its four Academy Award nominations that included one for Wertmüller, the first woman ever to land on the ballot for Best Director. (She lost to Rocky’s John Avildsen.)
    While The Lina Wertmüller Collection does include Swept Away and Seven Beauties, both of them digitally restored and looking and sounding excellent, the set is fleshed out by three lesser-known pictures of more recent vintage: Summer Night (1986), The Nymph (1996), and Ferdinando and Carolina (1999). They may not carry the pedigree of the earlier works, but offer a rare sampling of her later career. Since the early ‘80s, Wertmüller’s films have barely been released outside of Europe, so the opportunity to see anything is welcome.
    They also show us that the sexual preoccupation of Wertmüller’s best known pictures would evolve into a longstanding trademark. She underlines the political machination of sex, of domination both in the bedroom and on the battlefield, and displays how the two arenas are intrinsically linked. In her world, titillation comes at the price of war and terrorism, tragedy and deep personal loss.
    Of the latter pictures, The Nymph is a small gem. Set in a farming village north of Sicily before and during World War II, it follows a young girl caught between old world values and stability, questions of morality, and the upheaval of her roots with the invading Nazis. Wertmüller cast the young Lucia Cara in the complex role of the callow girl discovering her sexuality, her maturing body, the shock of being ostracized for alleged promiscuity, and the violent deaths of loved ones—one of them played by Stefania Sandrelli, an undervalued actress effortlessly reminding us of her supreme beauty and command of the lens.
    The Nymph carries the director’s aversion to fully realized characterizations, opting instead for convenient typecasting and flamboyant gesture. Her goal is to depict dehumanization at the hands of public opinion and war, and the belief that tongues and nations have the power to strip one of dignity and honor. Wertmüller may understand respect as nothing but a concept or an idea given lip service only out of obligation, duty or fear. In the end, respect deteriorates into a tenuous, ethereal theory irretrievably corrupted by outside influences. The Italian tradition of family values and ethnic pride slips through her hands into sand castles bracing for the next crashing wave.

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Mariangela Melato in Summer Night

    Her first period piece, Ferdinando and Carolina finds Wertmüller applying similar themes to 18th century Bourbon Naples in the court of its King. Mostly a frantic scramble of adolescent power brokers at odds with their adult advisors, the story builds to the prearranged marriage of King Ferdinando (Sergio Assisi as one Wertmüller’s rare freewheeling male hedonists) and the scheming 16-year-old Empress of Austria (a very alluring Gabriella Pession). The wedding night is the centerpiece, where Wertmüller provides ample room for the innocence and sexual urges of young lust to escalate to its climax. As an historic epic, the picture feels rather stunted—it could have gone on for at least another thirty minutes. But the combination of sensitivity and gentle erotica of the awkward lovers is touching, and their heated moment may well be the best single thing that the director has ever filmed.
    Included with the set is a 75-minute interview with Wertmüller conducted by filmmaker Carlo Lizzani, tracing her climb from enfant terrible to drama student and her fortuitous gig as Fellini’s assistant on (1963). We may have forgotten the influence he once held throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but Seven Beauties now appears as an homage to the maestro. The fleeting peripheral characters gazing soulfully or laughing maniacally, their complete lack of relevance to us or the “plot,” and Giancarlo Giannini cast in the battered, put-upon Marcello Mastroianni role—all of it crammed in tight frames, edited at fever pitch—Seven Beauties represents Wertmüller’s commercial peak, but does anyone still care or appreciate its debt to Fellini?
    The immense popularity it had thirty years ago now feels like a dream. It played to packed houses, but what were the audiences thinking? I recall when I saw it at the time, feeling let down after the colorful and calculated politics of Swept Away. Seven Beauties is claustrophobic and shrill, with so many earthy faces darting in and out, that the heavy handed nostalgia and labored social relevance (so much of it undoubtedly inspired by de Sica’s Garden of the Finzi-Contini [1970]) are quickly lost in the shuffle. Set during World War II in Italy and a German concentration camp (with the imposing Shirley Stoler as the commandant), the picture carries the burden of self-importance, an epic in awe of itself.
    On the other hand, Swept Away may not carry the weight it once did, either politically or aesthetically (it fueled many heated arguments back in its day). But the picture, so beautifully filmed in Sardinia, retains a core relationship that still captivates and feels fresh, even if its principals are underlined caricatures. In the interview, Wertmüller discusses her disregard for conventional male and female role play, and her propensity to investigate the masculine side of women and male femininity. Swept Away takes such thoughts to the extreme, where all sexual traits have been pared down to base cruelty and raw nerves. (For a separate review of Swept Away, click here.)
    At the end of this rocky road one finds something of a cracked jewel in Summer Night. The generally lenient Leonard Maltin dissed it with one-and-a-half stars, claiming that “this ‘night’ will never end.” His point is valid, for the picture is forced and padded, with Mariangela Melato floating on her Swept Away shrew, but without an atom of the earlier film’s wit or intelligence. Summer Night is a guilty pleasure that I’m embarrassed to admit to having seen four times—so far. Again using Sardinia as a backdrop, its situations of terrorism, kidnapping and extortion defy common sense. Replete with a clichéd (though atmospheric and catchy) musical score by Pino D'Angiò, the situation intensifies during Melato’s rendezvous with co-star Michele Placido playing the part Giannini would’ve gotten twenty years ago. The seduction is as torrid as late night cable TV, with the well-preserved and perfectly tanned forty-five-year-old Melato panting exquisitely in the nude.

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