Like her mentor Federico Fellini, Italian director Lina Wertmüller generally avoids understatement. Although technically brilliant and unrelentingly intense, her movies are often so loud, overbearing, and vulgar that it’s hard to sift the artistry from the assault. Plus, because she’s among the most deeply political filmmakers ever to achieve international fame, her pictures exist on literal and metaphorical levels, meaning that themes one discovers upon reflection add depth to what initially seem like undisciplined statements. In other words, it’s never prudent to dismiss a Wertmüller movie. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to actually enjoy a Wertmüller movie. So it is with Love & Anarchy, which I found almost interminable until the final act. Given the film’s rarified critical status, it’s possible that I’m either in the critical minority or that I just plain missed something important during the setup phase of the narrative. In any event, watching Love and Anarchy felt like having Wertmüller scream at me for two hours, even though I eventually found a grudging respect for the way the piece resolved.
Wertmüller’s favorite leading man, Giancarlo Giannini, plays Antonio, a provincial type who travels to Rome during Mussolini’s reign. (Backstory: Antonio became radicalized when Mussolini’s thugs killed one of his friends, so he’s determined to assassinate Il Duce.) Giving the would-be killer sanctuary while he plans the murder is a prostitute name Salomé (Mariangela Melato). Telling fellow sex workers at a bordello that Antonio is her cousin, she lets Antonio stay in her chambers and even proffers carnal favors. The first two-thirds of Love and Anarchy follow romantic-comedy rhythms as the cynical Salomé falls for the guileless Antonio, even as he becomes enamored of another prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito). Eventually, the film catches fire because Antonio reveals that he’s terrified about trying to kill Mussolini, leading the women to passionately argue against Antonio throwing his life away on a likely futile assassination attempt.
This material gives Wertmüller a fine dramatic vehicle for exploring the costs of idealism and the roles of individuals in oppressive times. Just as the film comes to life in its last stretch, Giannini’s performance crystallizes. His suave good looks buried behind huge freckles and wild red hair, Giannini spends the first two-thirds of the movie looking lost, his eyes bulging stupidly, but then we realize he’s simply been scared out of his wits the whole time. Why withhold that insight from the audience? Why waste time on Fellini-esque scenes at the bordello, replete with grotesque images of painted ladies? And why get so caught up in the romantic-triangle contrivance? Such are the mysteries of Wertmüller’s work.
Dubious narrative choices notwithstanding, Love and Anarchy is gorgeous from a technical perspective, with Giuseppe Rotunno contributing characteristically vivid camerawork and a number of vibrant locations providing texture. Visual splendor aside, so much of what makes this movie hard to watch is contained in Melato’s performance. Her makeup is extreme, all bleached hair and pale skin, so she looks like a vampire, and she never stops talking or lowers her volume to less than a caterwaul. She incarnates all the extreme things that make Love & Anarchy challenging to endure, even though the film contains many provocative insights.
Love & Anarchy: FUNKY