[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
In Love and Anarchy, Lina Wertmüller incorporates many things Fellinian—Rotunno’s gorgeous camerawork, Rota’s characteristic harmonies, thematic tidbits such as grotesques-made-lovable, prostitutes making music and selling their wares, and even an aging female character who pitiably begs her audience to respect her past stardom as an “artiste” (remember Mademoiselle Fifi in the harem sequence of 8 1/2)—but the director’s purpose could hardly differ more from Fellini’s; one has only to watch Amarcord and then Love and Anarchy to understand how many worlds apart two narrative voices with similar stylistic articulations can be.
Set in prewar Fascist Italy, Love and Anarchy tells of a peasant who comes to Rome to kill Mussolini and fails. It opens with a montage of black-and-white stills of Il Duce, alternating full portraits with strong closeups, and accompanied by the rhythm of military drums. Mere seconds into the film, the drums disturb our moviegoing complacency, forcing us to associate these essential Fascist images and sounds: power, efficiency, regimentation, bigness, fatality, death. In a sense the story is told before we ever meet its characters. In contrast, the first shot of the protagonist in a brief prologue shows him as a wide-eyed child, vulnerable on his potty, listening to his older relatives in the next room define an anarchist as “someone who kills a prince and gets hanged for it.” The movie has already twice sealed Tunin’s fate: by this casual line of conversation, and also, simply because history, elegantly recalled by the opening stills, tells us that he didn’t assassinate Mussolini.
As an adult, he comes to Rome to avenge his anarchist friend murdered in his homeland by the Fascists, taking on the friend’s role of political assassin. When the prostitute Salome, his secret political contact in a bordello, recounts a previous attempt on Mussolini’s life that resulted in the death of her former companion in love and anarchy, Tunin’s eyes seem to absorb the horrible facts of the story as if rehearsing for his own drama. Dialogue and images fly through the film as harbingers of a tragic end. Many lines seem “innocent”: it’s more as a boorish show of virility than anything that Security Officer Spatoletti, zooming through the countryside with Salome, Tunin (who’s posing as her cousin), and another prostitute named Tripolina, shouts promises to slaughter anyone who threatens the well-being of his leader. And after one of the most raucous, vulgar, and colorful eating scenes on film, the hookers at the bordello sing love songs and someone says, “Sing some more, we still have time”—before the arrival of the day’s clients, that is. Indeed, in the precious time before the planned assassination, Tunin and Tripolina share a simple and desperate happiness (hence the Love half of the title), made possible only by—in fact, because of—his impending doom.
Its end forecast many times, this is obviously not a suspense story. It focuses intimately on the lives of little people as they love one another in the shadow of death, plotting nevertheless with a modicum of hope and with great, absurd courage. It’s at times reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in showing the decidedly unheroic difficulties of getting someone to be dead (Gromek’s killing on the farm). Such nightmarish cumbersomeness is evident when Tunin and Salome go to dispose of the body of an old Fascist officer who had overexerted himself in the bordello; the “body” revives in an entirely possible, bewildering moment.
Wertmüller derives much of her power from mixing politics inextricably with the ungainlier of universal emotions. She has created epic’s opposite, working from homely psychological details upwards. Epic grandeur is reserved for sterilely depicting the Fascists; we see Tunin & co. in all their awkwardness, approaching true heroism from the back door. It is from sheer fright that Tunin is doubly wide-eyed as he takes on his hopeless burden of revenge. A casual remark from Salome establishes for us the incompatibility of this human feeling with the authoritarian regime: “Fear is only natural! The Fascists kill without fear. You’re an anarchist.” Portraying fear and vulnerability, Wertmüller finds new dimensions, a more thorough exploration of the relationship between politics and life than in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, to which this film has been compared.
Love and Anarchy is unquestionably a strong movie, smelling of sweat, food, wine, motorcycle exhaust, and blood. Nor are we spared its inevitable ending: we must witness the butchering of Tunin. We hate it, we’re disturbed by it: the film provides no catharsis for all the preceding fear and tension, but worse, a confirmation. The “wrong” person is killed; as in the beginning, hero Mussolini is victorious. History prevails, annihilating the fantasies so precariously and beautifully constructed by a new master of cinema.
LOVE AND ANARCHY
Screenplay and Direction: Lina Wertmüller. Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno. Music: Nino Rota.
The Players: Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangelo Melato, Lina Polito, Eros Pagni.
Copyright © 1975 Claudia Gorbman