|Matt Levine| Bogey and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Loren and Mastroianni. Giannini and Melato? As far as fabled onscreen couples go, the two leads who costarred in a number of Lina Wertmüller’s films in the 1970s – including three playing at the Trylon, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away (1974) – may not be household names. But it’s hard to think of a more volatile and hypnotic pair than Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, whose cinematic passion was so often violent, raw, grotesque, and desperate. Seeing these three movies in close proximity is something of a revelation, uncomfortable though it may be to witness their caustic emotions bared onscreen.
In the film that brought writer-director Wertmüller international fame, The Seduction of Mimi, Giannini plays the titular character, a hapless Sicilian who bumbles from one political ideology to the next. He starts off as a poor sulfur miner in a small village who adheres to Communist beliefs only because his friends do. He makes the mistake of voting for a leftist (at the encouragement of his fellow poverty-stricken workers) and not for the patsy candidate propped up by the local capitalist Mob bosses. So Mimi, fired from his job and persecuted by the Mafia, has to abandon his wife and family and hightail it to Turin, where he naively believes “workers are free and respected” and capitalist crooks don’t control everything.
It’s in Turin that he meets Fiore (Melato), a committed leftist who makes a living hawking the sweaters she knits on the side of the road. She’s a more socially conscious character than Mimi (which isn’t saying much) and arguably more nuanced than many of her later characters in Wertmüller films: “I’m nothing just now,” she says. “I have no party… With one group into bombs, another into banning work, we’re all on the Left, but we squabble among ourselves like enemies.” Mimi gawks at her, enraptured and oblivious, and before long he’s declaring his love for her with dialogue that could be seen as sincerely romantic or comedically vacuous: “I think of you dreaming at night, but not of me… All this love I have for you, great, desperate, useless as it is, is only my love and not yours.” So begins their tempestuous romance, based mostly on their perceived political affinities, which are genuine on Fiore’s part and less so on Mimi’s.
The Seduction of Mimi hurtles forward at breakneck speed: Mimi and Fiore have a baby, the entire pregnancy skipped over in the space of one cut; a moment later, Mimi witnesses a Mafia don in Turin gunning down an entire restaurant but chooses to keep his mouth shut, his allegiances veering toward the side of the plutocrats. He receives a promotion at a metal factory as a sign of thanks from his politically-connected bosses, but ironically it’s back in the Sicilian town from which he came, sending him and his new family back to his sexually frigid wife and uber-conservative family (a milieu that Wertmüller enjoys exaggerating and ridiculing).
The political ignorance of modern Italians (as Wertmüller sees it) is constantly mocked by The Seduction of Mimi: people adhere to whatever ideology is fashionable at the time, their lack of convictions ultimately dooming them in the end. The violent chauvinism and hypocrisy of Italian men, obsessed with their own virility, is also lambasted by the film, as Mimi is enraged to find out that his wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) had an affair and became pregnant while he was away—which is ludicrous since he did exactly the same thing. As always, Wertmüller presents a perplexing and often infuriating set of contradictions: she’s a political leftist but not a feminist, as revealed in the climactic comedic scene in which Mimi tries to have sex with an obese woman, her abundant folds of flesh observed in lingering close-up; Wertmüller leans towards comedy but her subject matter is of the bleakest sort; she is concerned with very pressing real-world issues but favors a preposterous, chaotic tone, influenced in part by her years working with Fellini (she credits her assistant director position on 8½ as a formative experience); her visuals have the dynamism and power of silent cinema, but her dialogue is copious and firecracker-quick, spraying from the mouths of her actors in unbridled frenzy.
Throughout The Seduction of Mimi—even and especially its most problematic moments (like a scene in which Mimi beats his pregnant wife and we’re not sure if it’s meant to be funny)—we have Giannini and Melato. You can’t take your eyes off of them, and their postdubbed dialogue is exhilarating to try to keep up with. The eyes of both Giannini and Melato, the radiant color of translucent jade, are transfixing. His weary face perfectly conveys someone who can barely keep up with the shifting times, and his hair becomes, somehow, marvelously expressive: curly and unkempt in his early scenes as a struggling worker, straightened and slick-back in his scenes as a burgeoning capitalist fat cat, complete with bushy sideburns and manicured mustache. Melato’s pale skin and elegant cheekbones suggest restraint and calm-under-pressure at times, while in other moments she’s furious and vitriolic, presenting her as someone both fragile and unbreakable, thoughtful and mercurial. They play off of each other marvelously; we believe they could fall cataclysmically in love, even though (as they realize by the end) they’re completely different in almost every way. The scene in which Mimi finally breaks down her defenses, proclaiming his love in a decrepit, unheated loft with a portrait of Lenin staring at them in the background, is a wonder to behold.
Love and Anarchy, from a year later, also features Giannini and Melato as would-be leftists caught up in the torrents of history. Admittedly, in this case they’re not romantically involved, but anarchists bent on killing Mussolini in the days leading up to World War II. Giannini is Tunino, an ignorant farmer inspired to join the anarchist cause when his beloved uncle is killed by Mussolini’s fascist forces; Melato is a prostitute named (a little too blatantly) Salomé, whose own lover, a leftist, was killed in Milan by Mussolini’s army. Tunino hides out in Salomé’s brothel in Rome for a few days, given shelter as they plot how to kill the dictator during a demonstration on the city plaza, and it’s during that time that Tunino falls in love with another angelic prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito).
In some ways, this is Wertmüller’s most melodramatic movie, given to tropes like the hooker with a heart of gold and the price of political sacrifice. But it may also be her best. The shadowy cobblestone streets and elegantly crumbling buildings of Rome provide marvelous scenery for this story of impending doom and fleeting love in a world unfit for it. There are also some hilarious moments despite the grim political atmosphere, embodied by the absurd character of Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), a despicable fascist (and Mussolini’s security advisor) who spends his time joking about massacring rebels and pinching the ass of any woman he comes across. He’s a furious and hypnotic parody of fascism, as loud and narcissistic as Trump and almost as stupid.
Love and Anarchy, despite its copious and often provocative dialogue, shows Wertmüller’s silent-movie proclivities at their finest; some of the best moments, including a sexually charged stare-down between two characters during an acoustic rendition of a resistance song, contain imagery reminiscent of something like Sunrise (1927). Throughout these three films, Giannini is Wertmüller’s Charlie Chaplin and Melato is her Louise Brooks: the former graceful but in over his head, sad and hilarious, his put-upon toughness a disguise for feeling vulnerable in a difficult world; the latter sexy and steely but hiding something wounded, aware that she’s generally smarter and more capable than the men surrounding her, but also beneath them in the social hierarchy. It’s remarkable to see a writer-director and her two stars so completely on the same precarious wavelength.
As the characters are dwarfed by urban design and architecture in Love and Anarchy, it’s tempting to think of another triumvirate of a director and movie stars in Italian cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Delon, and Monica Vitti, who in L’eclisse are made inhuman by their insignificance in relation to the constructed, consumerist world around them. But the characters in Wertmüller’s film do remain human, their admirable but destructive ambitions ultimately revealed to be inconsequential in the face of rampaging fascism. That’s largely due to Giannini and Melato, who suggest unspoken depths beneath the movie’s surface storyline: is Salomé jealous of the love between Tunino and Tripolina, and that’s why she urges him to go through with the assassination? Are they both basically nihilistic, knowing that love and sex matter little when death (at either their own hands or those of Mussolini’s goon squads) waits around the corner? There’s more subtlety and ambiguity here than in the other collaborations in this series, and it’s a refreshing change.
By far the most problematic film that Giannini and Melato starred in for Wertmüller is 1974’s Swept Away (with a full title of Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), though it may also be the most interesting. Melato plays Raffaella, a boorish capitalist who’s enjoying a seaside vacation on the yacht of her wealthy intellectual husband. She’s beautiful, privileged, carefree, outspoken—she makes no attempt to hide her disdain for those socially and economically beneath her. The world is “a shithole full of starving people,” she concludes, and ridicules the inhumanity of Communism, sarcastically saying that Stalin’s concentration camps were “well-run.” (One of her friends says that’s nothing compared to what the U.S. did to Hiroshima.)
Giannini plays a lower-class Sicilian sailor named Gennarino, a deckhand on the yacht. He bristles at her behavior from the start, glowering at her when she complains about the coffee being too cold or the pasta too bland. Things get even worse when he tries to sail her to an isolated island on a small rubber dinghy for a day of sunbathing; inevitably, the boat stalls, they drift at sea for days, and eventually crash ashore on a deserted, edenic island.
Swept Away is nothing less than a titanic clash in a primal setting—not only a clash between man and woman, but between political ideology, capitalism and communism, master and slave, the haves and have-nots. It’s funny and sophisticated, at least for a while: as Gennarino tries to avoid Raffaella on the island, he blurts, “I can’t get away from you. It’s worse than Coca-Cola!” In one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie, Gennarino catches some fish, starts a fire, and prepares a feast for himself; a starving Raffaella gazes at the meal from a distance, and Gennarino forces her to pay for her food, an echo of the capitalist exchange she holds so dear. First, he forces her to pay with money, which is absurd on this island where currency means nothing; second, he forces her to pay a more carnal and emotional price.
This is where the movie gets infuriating: Wertmüller spins the master-slave relationship on its head when Gennarino forces Raffaella to give in to him, and then love him and become obsessed with him, through physical abuse and rape. There’s the unambiguous indication that Raffaella truly wanted this victimization all along and enjoys it (a hugely problematic trope also familiar from Wertmüller’s All Screwed Up). By the end of the film, a truly twisted and codependent passion has been built through violence and subjugation. If Swept Away starts as a comedy, its most representative shot is actually a bleak and silent image of Raffaella staring at black sludge lapping onto the rocky shore—a visual symbol for her self-perception and her view of human nature.
Swept Away is massively powerful and thought-provoking, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. One critic called it “the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” There’s more to it than that—the sadomasochism that Wertmüller portrays is political as well as sexual, suggesting that the capitalist elite are not only dependent on the oppressed classes but also secretly desiring their own downfall at their hands—but that doesn’t excuse the simplicity or callousness of the violent rape fantasy that Swept Away espouses. Arguably, though, a problematic film made by a female director about sex, power, oppression, and subjugation should be seen and debated precisely for its nauseating contradictions.
Once again, through it all, there is Melato and Giannini, who give human form to the cerebral ideas and provocations that Wertmüller unleashes. One could call Wertmüller fearless for presenting these radical themes, but the real fearlessness is courtesy of Melato and Giannini, who embody these characters and their extremely skewed states of mind. On this sun-drenched island, their beautiful bodies frequently exposed, their sparkling eyes radiating hatred and desire, the ugliness inside of these characters is indelibly conveyed by Melato and Giannini.
These three films—The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away—are undoubtedly Wertmüller’s creations. When they excel, it’s because of her audacity: her blend of political ideology and sexual power play, of farcical comedy and utterly bleak tragedy, her mix of silent-film elements and mile-a-minute dialogue, her remarkably vivid and mobile camerawork (courtesy of cinematographers such as Dario Di Palma, Giuseppe Rotunno, and others). But when they fail, it’s also due to Wertmüller’s occasional prioritization of idea over character, provocation over sensitivity, and her adoption of some seriously callous depictions of women.
What I’ll remember from these three films are Giannini following Melato around the snowy streets of Turin as a mournful operetta plays on the soundtrack, or Melato and Giannini having one last desperate kiss (in front of his supposed beloved) as he prepares to kill himself for the sake of anarchism, or the two of them lying naked on the beach, feeling twisted and depraved and rabidly in love. These films were brought into the world by Wertmüller but they belong to Giannini and Melato, two overpowering and captivating movie stars that deserve their place in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest tempestuous duos.
Lina Wertmuller’s films continue playing at the Trylon thru September 29. You can purchase tickets for the remaining films; Love & Anarchy, Swept Away and The Seduction of Mimi here.