Of all contemporary filmmakers alive today from Italy, or anywhere really, Lina Wertmüller is one who is not immediately visible in a canonical film history sense. Perhaps that is about to change. Kino Lorber has just released a box set of seven films by the writer/director, who is known for her slapstick satire and an Academy Award nomination making her the first woman to compete in the directing category. Her ability to tell complex, entertaining, sexy stories has been proven multiple times. Her fearless wit which infuses politically and erotically charged subject matter can comfortably stand beside Fellini and other brilliantly wacky cinema personalities from Pedro Almodóvar to John Waters. She is known best for her early films like Seven Beauties (1975, for which she received the above-mentioned nomination) and Swept Away (1974), but today I am going to focus on the two films released by Kino that came later in her career: Summer Night and Ferdinando & Carolina.
One reason that Summer Night (1986) is such an effective film is because it is basically the exact same story as Swept Away, only staged in a different setting. The two films complement each other, tied together by the strangely beautiful blonde Mariangela Melato who stars in both of the leading female roles. While Swept Away lays out a heated conflict of sexual power games between the rich, upper-class Rafaella (Melato) and Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), an angry, chauvinistic communist on a deserted island, Summer Night has Fulvia, the upper-class woman, kidnapping and winding up in similar erotic situations with the bound and blindfolded Beppe (Michele Placido), a Robin Hood style crook. Viewers with the same sentiments as me—essentially that Swept Away is a great story, but the sparse setting gets tiresome—will welcome Summer Night, which takes the similar scenarios and places them in what Kevin Thomas of the LA Times described as an “immense Mediterranean Gothic palace.” In retrospect, what Thomas may not have known at the time is that said palace is an unmistakable signifier of 1980’s style.
With the help of the veteran military mercenary Turi (Roberto Herlitzka), Fulvia spares no time in kidnapping Beppe, a left-wing “revolutionary,” because, as she says, “It’s time they learn to respect and fear the ruling class.” The prisoner is restricted with a ridiculously chic blindfold that appears to be straight out of a bondage shop. Wertmüller is known for being just as critical and suspicious of left-wing extremists, as much as the right, indicating this early on by having the captor and captive wearing the same jacket. Kriss Ravetto’s observations on Wertmüller’s process in Seven Beauties can also be applied here: “like Pasolini, Wertmüller is highly skeptical of traditional forms of resistance, since they also participate in the spectacular economy that reproduces images of good versus evil. Her bloated form of mimicry, accordingly, exposes normativized understandings of reality as simulations of preexisting ideological, moral, and symbolic economies.” She feminizes Beppe, who is bound and half-naked, lying on a bed for a good part of his imprisonment, while giving power and dominance to Fulvia, the female character, but this reversed power dynamic is conflicted by the aberrance of her political views. She is given the gaze which has been taken away from the traditionally dominant man, but she does not use it for any kind of moral good. This kind of avoidance of delineating right and wrong is something that Wertmüller shares with other greats of political cinema such as Elio Petri and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Much like in Swept Away, the political bickering is constant, with Fulvia and Beppe spouting support or disdain for the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. However, one thing which is markedly different between the two films is how they end up becoming lovers. Swept Away has Gennarino forcing Rafaella into submission, basically igniting their intimacy with rape—something that upset a number of viewers. Summer Night has Fulvia passing as a prostitute, with two other paid women in tow, seducing the blindfolded Beppe. He brags about possessing Fulvia, although engaged viewers can keep in mind the fact that she is always in control, having blocked Beppe’s gaze and having her henchmen watching the action through a closed-circuit surveillance camera the whole time. By the end of the film, the ransom money has become almost arbitrary, as the two main characters continue to play their socially designated roles, while submitting to desires that contend otherwise.
Ferdinando & Carolina, made over a decade after Summer Night, is a different film in Wertmüller’s repertoire, first because it is an eighteenth-century period piece. That being said, the humor and approach to character development is very similar to the director’s signature style. The film is quirky, not taking itself too seriously, and admittedly is not as good as Wertmüller’s earlier films such as Seven Beauties. Ferdinando & Carolina is of note for other reasons, for example having the giallo queen and mistress of 1970’s Italian cinema, Edwige Fenech as one of the producers. It is a comfort knowing that some actresses in their mature years still have an impact on world cinema.
The film primarily follows the prince of Naples, Ferdinando (Sergio Assisi), around in his formative years, where we see him as a randy man of privilege, embarking on an affair with the princess of Medina (Nicole Grimaudo). After failed engagement arrangements with two Austrian princesses, he is set up with the young and sprightly Carolina (Gabriella Pession), who doesn’t make an appearance until over halfway through the film. The title of the film leads us to believe that we will be seeing a story of great companionship, in which we experience the titular characters equally, but this is very much Ferdinando’s story. This viewer is left wanting to get to know Carolina more. We learn that she is an advocate for social reform and progress (this is taking place during the Age of Enlightenment, of course), but instead of focusing on that, we learn of Ferdinando’s gambling for the possession of women, and his quest for a red-head’s scarlet Venus mound. Essentially, we watch Ferdinando’s inability to mature into a responsible adult, or king, but perhaps this is one of the film’s messages—that kings have the privilege of avoiding maturity.
Ferdinando & Carolina is valuable for an entertaining story with top notch art direction and costume design—the production designer being Wertmüller’s husband and longtime collaborator, Enrico Job—but the film falls short of the complexity and sociological confusion that her films from the 70s achieved. Film critic Simon Abrams, who contributed short written pieces to a number of the new Wertmüller releases from Kino, states that “Wertmüller’s real-life concern with the consolidation of power shows in Ferdinando and Carolina, a comedy that is only superficially less ferocious than her acerbic earlier films.” Indeed, the erotic and political madcap skeleton still rattles at the core of the film, but the eighteenth century exterior plays out far more like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) than Seven Beauties.
The films that Wertmüller made in the 1980s and 90s, like Summer Night and Ferdinando & Carolina may seem somewhat defanged or derivative of her earlier work, but they are definitely still worth watching. Her films from the 70s are genuine classics that deserve to be noticed as much as films by her Italian and international contemporaries, but her entire repertoire deserves a thorough viewing. I recommend that interested cinefiles pick up all seven of the films that Kino Lorber is putting out. Wertmüller’s cinema goes beyond those interested in feminism or women’s films, because her themes are often murky and fluctuating when it comes to the competing powers of different genders and expressions of sexuality. She does not waste time moralizing or being didactic, but instead creates films that are for an audience who doesn’t mind thinking hard about the content, understanding that there are often unavoidable contradictions in social interaction, especially when it is to the extreme.
Ravetto, Kriss. The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2001. p. 188.
Thomas, Kevin. “Movie Review: ‘Summer Night’: The Heat Is On.” Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-06-26/entertainment/ca-6614_1_mariangela-melato Published: June 26, 1987. Accessed: September 19, 2017.