Onscreen/Offscreen: Lina Wertmüller and the sweep of fascism

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      In what might be the single most incendiary piece of film criticism written this year, Celluloid Liberation Front breaks whatever glass screen protected Roberto Rosselini's War Trilogy (1945-1948) and sets ablaze the artefact inside. This trilogy of "rubble films," an entirely literal designation for late '40s and early '50s Italian cinema shot in the wreckage of the Second World War and Italian fascism, is a touchstone in film history not only for its formal contributions to a "naturalistic" cinema but also for the numerous theoretical texts this evolution in realist aesthetics aided in giving rise to. CLF's repudiation of the trilogy is twofold: to demonstrate how Italian neorealism developed as a means of coping with the country's recent fascist history and how those very aesthetics hid these intentions in plain site, erasing all notions that Italy had, in fact, fought alongside the Nazis just years prior.

      Neorealist works like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) or Umberto D. (1952) follow a precise formal playbook in default dialectic with the snazzier, more vibrant Hollywood phantasms being made around the same time. What's more real: a film with professional actors or nonprofessional ones? A film whose story is modeled after the routines of the working class or one that fits a preconceived structure determined by the market? A film made with the raw materials of its own subject—everyday life in the streets—or the recreation of that in an artificially lit and staged studio set? It should be clear that the only real difference between these two forms is our ingrained perception of them—“life as it really is” is, of course, the greatest illusion, and according to CLF, powerful enough to rewrite twenty years of a nation’s fascist history while passing it off as artful and authentic.

      It's not so much a coincidence then that the next generation of great Italian filmmakers—the Frederico Fellinis, Michaelangelo Antonionis, and Pier Paolo Pasolinis—gravitated more toward the internal than the external, the fantastical rather than the objectively historical. This counter-wave of films, among them 8 ½ (1963), Blow-Up (1966) and L'Avventura (1960), have a deep distrust for the unambiguous and concrete. The chief method became no longer to develop a visual language of objectivity but one of controlled grotesquerie, unearthing the nation's debased unconscious and putting it on wretched display.

      A lesser-known contemporary to this counter-wave in Italian cinema, the gleefully nihilistic and exhaustingly playful Lina Wertmüller, the subject of a retrospective starting Friday (September 8) at The Cinematheque, reconsidered her country's fascist legacy with an altogether different form. Wertmüller deploys irony as though it were a spiked whip that, lash by lash, she uses to beat her “honorable” male protagonists into something a little more disfigured, a little more open-wounded than what is expected of the archetype. If her values and philosophies are less clear than her realist forefathers, that's in part due to her reflexive skepticism and less totalizing worldview.

      For contemporary audiences fashioned on glossy prestige reenactment, Wertmüller's most celebrated work, the one that landed her the first female nomination in the best director category at the 1977 Academy Awards, is the unnervingly brash and unrepentantly artificial Seven Beauties (1976). It’s even more galling than the most gonzo of Quentin Tarantino's historical genre epics and as exuberant as reflexive spectacles like Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006). Wertmüller's film breaks down all notions that sympathy is most concentrated in works that best resemble the pantomime of real life and that unaestheticized signifiers are the only sensitive and moral methods of historical portrayal.

      In a sense, the film is a complete debasement of all that is sanctified: shameful, even willful, revisionist scab-picking with anger-infused hindsight. But it is precisely this transgression that brings what has been historically erased back from the dead; it's a make-believe counter-history that, in its very provocation, demonstrates what can and cannot be talked about: a psychoanalysis of the film's content via its transgressive form. But this is not only a national indictment of its country's previous methods of historical portrayal but an immersion into that very pathology.

      Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) is a mustached romantic, self-described as a man of high Italian honor. So when one of his seven sisters becomes a sex worker, he has too much pride to not kill the pimp. He cuts the man’s voluptuous and overweight body up into compartmentalized pieces that he stows in multiple handbags that are far too heavy for one man to carry, resembling more in this moment Charlie Chaplin than the Don Juan type he self-consciously emulates. Pasqualino is inevitably jailed, sent to a mental institution for a few years (less than the political prisoner he meets upon his arrest) where he becomes a vocal supporter of Mussolini and is eventually allowed to serve his country in arms; until he runs away from his post, that is.

      Pasqualino is the male equivalent to the industrious female protagonists in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s similar excavation of his home country of Germany’s fascist legacy, the BRD trilogy. These characters are less direct metaphor than people born of their times, who use their gender, status, race or personality to penetrate the weaknesses and loopholes in their corrupt milieu. Wertmüller fractures the narrative between Pasqualino’s pre-war years and those spent in a Nazi camp as a prisoner of war under a pants-suit-wearing female dominatrix that he takes as his primary aim to seduce. An underlying pathology is uniformly present in his interactions with his sisters, his loud-mouthed allegiance to the fascist party, and his eventual role in maintaining the guards’ control of the camp. But these events, even the ones that intersect with national history, are mere outgrowths of a toxic personal identity that has been brewing since Italy entered the war. What Seven Beauties achieves is to completely destroy any semblance of honorableness from Pasqualino’s self-image—and by extension Italy’s—such that by the time this heinous man comes back from the war, he doesn’t give a damn that his lover became a whore. Fascism always existed; it just may have taken some a little longer to notice.