Italian auteur Lina Wertmüller is in a category all her own. After working as an assistant director for Federico Fellini on 8½, Wertmüller began a directing career that established her as a confrontational, no-holds-barred artist. Her films often mixed sex and violence, as well as humor and dark themes, to disturbing, challenging, and mesmerizing effects. She didn’t do this in the name of exploitation, or to deliberately discomfit her audience, but to illustrate how comedy and tragedy in life are often inseparable, and the all-too-comfortable categories that distinguish them in film genres are far too convenient to reflect this reality.
Wertmüller’s best-known works are the international hit Swept Away (1974, but unfortunately better known today for the failed Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake) and the astounding Seven Beauties (1975), a film about a fascist-sympathetic Don Juan who spends time in a German concentration camp and attempts to seduce the camp’s imposing female officer-in-charge in order to gain food and, perhaps, freedom. Seven Beauties gave Wertmüller the distinction of being the first-ever woman nominated for the Best Director Oscar. It also provided a nomination for its star, Giancarlo Giannini (perhaps best-known today for his supporting roles in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), who starred in many of Wertmüller’s films as her bumbling, promiscuous muse.
Now, three previously unavailable films by Wertmüller, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love & Anarchy (1973), and All Screwed Up (1974), have been made available in a DVD box set and separate Blu-Ray releases from Kino Classics. These three films further enrich a sense of Wertmüller’s particular brand of cinematic activism, unmatched visual style, and mastery of absurdist scenarios (especially when considering that they were made immediately prior to her two best-known films). And the first two of these features provide further proof of Giannini’s manic energy and diverse capabilities as an actor in his prime.
The Seduction of Mimi follows the misadventures of a communist metalworker directed to help rig an election of a local Mafioso (who is identified rather hilariously by a triumvirate of moles on his right cheek that repeatedly given a quick zoom). When Mimi (Giannini) instead chooses to vote for the Communist candidate he must flee Sicily (and his wife) to avoid the mob, where he falls in love with a local political activist (Mariangela Melato) and starts a new family while his past threatens to catch up with him. Mimi marks Wertmüller’s breakthrough hit, a success at Cannes and the director’s first collaboration with Gianni in a starring role. Mimi establishes the unlikely balance Wertmüller would continue to strike between absurdist comedy, non-didactic political satire, and surprising humanism throughout her subsequent films.
Love & Anarchy finds Giannini and Melato teaming up yet again for this firecracker of a love story between an anarchist and a prostitute (the pair would star as lovers opposite one another a third time for Swept Away). Like Seven Beauties and other Italian films of the 1970s like Pasolini’s Salo, Fellini’s Amarcord, and Bertolucci’s The Conformist and 1900, Love and Anarchy takes place in 1930s Fascist Italy. Gianni won Best Actor at Cannes for his stellar performance as an anarchist who takes up lodging in a brothel under the invitation of an anti-fascist prostitute (Melato) as he prepares to assassinate Mussolini and falls in love with another prostitute at the brothel (played by Lina Polito), who struggles between devotion to love and devotion to country. Love & Anarchy is the worthy centerpiece of this collection.
All Screwed Up is the most obscure title in the collection. Originally released in the US under the title Everything Ready, Nothing Works, the film follows the adventures of two young men (played by Luigi Diberti and Nino Bignamini) from the rural Italian south as they make their may to Milan in search of work. A satire on the illusion of social mobility in the heavily classed and regionally-biased society or urban Italy in the 1970s, All Screwed Up is the most overtly slapstick film in the collection, though all the films here share moments of outrageous (and often dark) comedy.
Besides a stills gallery for each title and the theatrical trailer of Love & Anarchy, this release is virtually absent in regards to special features. A documentary or a few commentaries from Italian film experts would go a long way to establishing and contextualizing Wertmüller’s importance in both Italian cinema and international arthouse cinema of the 1970s. All titles are presented in the original Italian with English subtitles.
The films are available in two different ways on Blu-Ray and DVD. On Blu-Ray, the titles can be purchased individually, but on DVD they are available exclusively as a collection. While I’m rarely a fan of bundling DVD titles in a way that prevents them from being purchased individually, distributing these titles both individually and as a package makes sense: each film ultimately stands on its own, yet the collection of them together forms a triumvirate which permits a firm understanding of the central characteristics that defined Wertmüller as a master filmmaker. Though more of a helpful primer or a welcome resource for existing fans than a one-stop collection for completists, The Lina Wertmüller Collection offers a fantastic survey of a truly one-of-a-kind director.
Wertmüller’s films explore political differences and sexual politics in a way that often keeps the filmmaker’s perspective on such issues ambiguous. Though Wertmüller’s protagonists often assumed the communist and anarchist politics that she herself espoused, Wertmüller’s men and women were rarely feminists. Though Wertmüller identified as feminist and paved the way for the female auteur in modern Western European cinema, her work’s ambiguous gender politics and iconoclastic social politics brought her criticism from occupants of numerous political ideologies. Her protagonists are rarely heroes, and are often despicable-but-empathetic, complicated men of occasionally misplaced principles. Her visual style is dynamic, inventive, and singular, resistant of both Italy’s neorealist tradition and Fellini’s post-Dolce Vita carnivalesque dreamscapes. Her films are controversial, confrontational, dynamic, and always entertaining.
The 85-year-old Wertmüller continues her work as a filmmaker in Italy today. Though her 1970s collaborations with Gianni are her most celebrated works, she’s arguably still underrated for her contributions to Italian cinema in the US, as the mammoth reputations of Fellini, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and De Sica still exceed and obscure her own, But Wertmüller has no shortage of masterpieces. The Lina Wertmüller Collection takes the necessary steps to giving Wertmüller the reputation she deserves.