Known for her explorations of political and sexual themes—with onscreen sexual and romantic relationships often serving as allegories for political conflicts—Italian director Lina Wertmüller has often been unfairly neglected alongside contemporaries like Fellini, Pasolini, Bunuel, and other male directors working with similarly transgressive and surreal material. Wertmüller primarily established this reputation with a series of four films made in quick succession in the early ‘70s: Mimí metallurgico ferito nell’onore (The Seduction of Mimi, 1972), Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza… (Love and Anarchy, 1973), Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (Swept Away, 1974), and Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975). These films star, in varying combinations, her two key muses from the period, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, often featured in roles as loners or outcasts who are at odds with middle and working class life in 1970s Italy.

In general, these films are set during either the wartime or postwar years, when Italy was going through rapid social and economic changes and the conservative values of the early part of the century were replaced by an obsession with luxury, commerce, and new social freedoms. A once rural country speckled with isolated city states became gradually more urban and the so-called peasant cultural values celebrated by someone like Pasolini became pushed into the margins of Italian life. With these four films, Wertmüller is certainly concerned with these developments, but particularly focuses on sexual politics and the changing landscape of Italian sexual identity. She uses themes like infidelity, illicit desire, and unconventional relationships that fall outside the scope of traditional marriage to explore things like masculinity and the inherent fragility of machismo. This was certainly not an uncommon topic for Italian filmmakers in the ‘70s—titles as varied as Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961), Liliana Cavani’s Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974), and Ettore Scola’s Una giornata particolare (A Special Day, 1977) all deal with similar themes in some very different ways—Wertmüller particularly emphasizes the sexual appetites of women in relation to the inetto, or inept male protagonist. A character type made popular by Marcello Mastroianni, Giannini brings out the particularly absurd, grotesque elements of this character.

This began with The Seduction of Mimi in 1972, which follows the trials and tribulations of a Sicilian man named Mimi (Giannini). He refuses to bow to mafia pressure and instead of voting for the predetermined candidate in a local election, unexpectedly decides to vote for the communist option. For this, he’s fired and is forced to leave his wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) and family behind to look for work in Turin. There he finds a job with a union after lying that he is related to a prominent member of the local mob. He also meets the staunch communist Fiore (Melato), and repeatedly tries to seduce her. After numerous rejections, he realizes he is in love with her and the two reluctantly begin a relationship that becomes quite passionate; they move in together and Fiore eventually gives birth to their son. Through a seemingly random series of events, Mimi accidentally endears himself to the local mafia and winds up with a promotion and an unexpected relocation back to Sicily. There he must juggle his relationships with Fiore and his wife, hiding them both from each other, and tragedy ensues when Rosalia becomes pregnant from an affair.

The Seduction of Mimi unusually intertwines comedy and tragedy in the sense that it charts the accidental, absurd rise of Mimi through the mafia, though he constantly insults and rejects them. The erosion of his values is gradual and is tied into to sacrifices and compromises he makes for his romantic life: he loves Fiore and has a happy home life with her, but refuses to divorce Rosalia and thus cannot marry Fiore and must keep their relationship secret. Enraged that he refuses to have sex with her, but unaware of the true explanation why, Rosalia assumes he is gay and has an affair. It is the union of this—her pregnancy—that ultimately unravels Mimi’s life when he teams up with the jilted wife of Rosalia’s boyfriend for revenge sex that leads to a calculated pregnancy.

It is Wertmüller’s unexpected use of comedy in The Seduction of Mimi and her irreverent, often grotesque use of sex that makes the film so distinctive and solidified her reputation as a prominent figure in arthouse cinema. In Popular Italian Cinema, Sergio Rigoletto writes that she had been viewed as “one of the enfants terribles of 1960s Italian cinema” with her first films, I basilischi (The Lizards, 1963), made the same year that she served as assistant director on Fellini’s 8 1/2. But The Seduction of Mimi is her first real creative success and, I think, her first step is establishing her role as an auteur in Italian cinema. It certainly helped set the tone for her other films of that ‘70s that made such use of her distinctive sense of humor. As Rigoletto writes, “It was full of gags, crass humour and had a virtuoso visual style that was far from the restrained realist aesthetic of her first film. […] Wertmüller is a director whose use of laughter—often reliant on vulgar jokes and obscenities—has been targeted, especially in Italy, by accusations of degradation and debasement.”

In this sense, The Seduction of Mimi is a film that remains relatively undated and will probably offend anyone who demands trigger warnings with their cinema. Certainly its references to ‘70s politics and the Sicilian mafia may be a bit obscure for contemporary viewers, but its ability to shock has not waned in the slightest. Wertmüller does not shy away from presenting sex as both erotic and as fundamentally ridiculous: sweaty, aerobic, often ludicrous, and sometimes disappointing or even violent. The Seduction of Mimi effectively opens with a rape joke, as Mimi’s wife Rosalia performs her marital duty—nightly intercourse—though she is clearly not aroused and is in physical discomfort. Mimi could not care less. Sex, in The Seduction of Mimi but in Wertmüller’s films in general, is often currency between individuals, classes, and genders. Mimi really gets into trouble because he attempts to use it as revenge, a theme that would recur in Love and Anarchy. In essence, Mimi’s major conflicts throughout the film are inextricable from his sex life. Rigoletto writes, “Wertmüller’s popular cinema […] is based on this trajectory: it moves from a moment of familiarization to a subsequent state of discomfort appearing when the terms of a political and/or moral dilemma are revealed.”

Like other inetto characters and some of Giannini’s other characters in Wertmüller’s films, a line is drawn between Mimi’s difficulty establishing himself economically and satisfying the appetites of the women in his life. Wertmüller is never afraid to focus on women’s sexuality and unlike many other directors—including a contemporary like Liliana Cavani—Wertmüller frequently portrays erotic subjects who are not conventionally attractive. One of the film’s center pieces, and certainly one of the funniest in all of Italian cinema, is a sex scene between the overweight housewife Amalia (the brilliant Elena Fiore), who Mimi seduces as part of his revenge scheme; here she is both a figure of fun and has the last laugh, utterly at Mimi’s expense.

Even the handsome Giancarlo Giannini is made to be absurd and ridiculous, even while he is portrayed as a compelling erotic interest and romantic lead. On one hand, his role as Mimi is a fairly obvious interpretation of the inetto, but Wertmüller’s transgressive manipulations of this type makes Mimi bear something in common with the tragi-comic leads of many of Rainer Werner Fassbinder films. Coincidentally, a few years later, Giannini would go on to appear in Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen (1981) as a pathetic love interest on the run in WWII-era Germany/Switzerland. Gone are his quirky mannerism and fumbling attempts at pleasure; he abandons his love interest and his dedication to the Resistance because of his family’s bourgeois demands.

Wertmüller’s follow up, Love and Anarchy, from a year later, deals with similar themes of war, repression, and resistance. The lengthy original title, Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza…, actually translates to This Morning at 10, on Flower Street, in a Famous Brothel… and is indicative of Wertmüller’s tendency to provide comically long titles for some of her films. (The Seduction of Mimi’s original title actually translates to Mimi the Metal Worker, Wounded in Honor.) The film takes place during the immediate prewar years, in the ‘20s, when the fascists were assuming control of Italy. Tunin (Giannini) is determined to get revenge when he discovers that his beloved friend has been killed; he plans to complete his friend’s goal of assassinating Mussolini. Mirroring Mimi’s journey from the country to the city, Tunin heads to Rome and discovers help in an unlikely place: a local brothel. It happens to be run by Salomè (Mariangela Melato), who helps him plot his assassination, though Tunin’s love for another whore, Tripolina (Lina Polito), presents a distraction and ultimately an obstacle.

As with Mimi, there is a conflict between Tunin’s political and romantic goals and Love and Anarchy takes on a similarly tragi-comic trajectory as The Seduction of Mimi (and a later film like Swept Away). Vengeance is ultimately the undoing of both Mimi and Tunin and both films leave behind a bitter aftertaste and the assurance that all political action, while morally necessary, is effectively pointless. The sense of nihilism in these films is tied to the mounting tension between sex and violence, as the protagonists allow their moral integrity to be slowly stripped away. In Man in Disorder: The Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s, Grace Russo Bullaro writes, “To some critics the Wertmüller protagonists, Mimi, Gerrarino, Tunin and Pasqualino, were examples of the ‘Chaplinesque underdog’ confronted by powerful institutions such as the Government, the Church, the Mafia, the Nazis and the Family, as well as the more generalized social structures such as class and gender.” Bullard refers to them as representations of the “Man in Disorder” who had to dismantle these institutions in order to save civilization itself. Critical to this journey, the “Man in Disorder” is situated “in a political and ethical dilemma where in order to survive he must abandon his moral principles.”

As The Seduction of Mimi has some real-life context in the role of the mafia, unions, and working class struggles within the film, Love and Anarchy was apparently based on the real story of a man who was executed for trying to kill Mussolini. But the downfall of both Mimi and Tunin is revenge; personal obsessions override political aims and they are undone by the typical aims of the inetto: pride, honor, and masculinity. Wertmüller emphasizes the fact that even characters on the margins of society are bound up by the same deeply ingrained social concerns. The seductions of Mimi and Tunin, then, cements this bond between sexual and economic desire, often a central focus of Italian cinema of the ‘70s through directors like Pasolini and Elio Petri.

These films, along with Swept Away and Seven Beauties, which I will discuss in part two of this essay, rank Wertmüller as one of the most insightful and talented directors of her generation, though she is often forgotten aside more lauded contemporaries. Kino Lorber have recently released seven of her films (the four discussed here as well as All Screwed Up, Summer Night (1986), and Ferdinand & Carolina (1999)) in a wonderful theatrical run meant to celebrate her challenging, transgressive, and seductive canon.