Lina Wertmüller leaves us with a lengthy quote and a mystery at the end of Love and Anarchy (1973). The quote is from diehard anarchist icon Errico Malatesta and the mystery is how we as an audience are supposed to interpret it after what we just saw. Malatesta advocated violence against the state and its agents as an essential component of class struggle and glorious revolution, yet died an elderly man far from home and conflict. Giancarlo Giannini’s dirty-faced provincial Antonio “Tunin” Soffiantini, the world-weary protagonist of Wertmüller’s film, is a young man heavily entrenched in a violent struggle against the state.
The director depicts him as neither wholly committed to the cause of anti-fascism nor fully equipped to process the realities of his situation. As the plot unravels, Wertmüller presents Tunin with dualistic dilemmas of consciousness, one political and one sexual. The resultant picture leads the audience to conclude that anarchism, much like the fascism it rails against, can only succeed if it is fueled by the bodies of young ill-informed men. Tunin really only got involved in a plot to assassinate Mussolini in early 30s Rome because of the death of his friend at the hands of fascist police. He is not the valiant martyr of Malatesta’s quote, but an impressionable boy barely out of his teens whose idealism is subservient to libido and whim. Wertmüller, through the many violent acts committed by fascists and through the boorish character of Spattoletti, is unambiguous in her disdain for fascism. Nonetheless, her choice to quote Malatesta at the tragic end of her film can be read simultaneously as bitterly ironic and heartbreakingly sincere.
Irony and sincerity seem to be in a duel to the death throughout this film. Hiding out in one of Rome’s more prestigious whorehouses, where the clients may very well be state agents like the macho security officer Spattoletti, Tunin plots violence against the state while slowly and unwillingly falling passionately in love with one of the residing prostitutes (or perhaps two of them, depending on your interpretation of the film’s final act). Wertmüller films the film’s prime location with a loving attention to shadow and angles, framing her subjects in narrow hallways and discreet lighting that accentuates the characters’ fragmented lives both as subjects of a fascist state and cogs in the sex industry.
The film is not so much a cohesive critique of anti-woman power structures so much as a barbed retort against both conformity and resistance. The women of the brothel – with the exception of love interest Tripolina and Tunin’s host the blonde Salome – are backstabbing vulgarians with little substance beyond their initial charms. While some points of the film read like a celebration of what little feminine independence can be achieved within a corrupt and chauvinistic system, other moments revel in the ugliness of female jealousies and capriciousness.
In one sequence, the whole brothel comes together to dispose of the body of a loyal customer. Tunin, seeking to get Tripolina a few days off so that he can romance her before going off to perform his romantic anarchist killing, conspires with the brothel owners to cart the body away in exchange for Tripolina’s time off. The trade implies a fundamental thriftiness of the human soul that Wertmüller asserts is fundamental to the sex trade, but in the process of making this point she also inarguably denigrates women. Imagine if she was a male filmmaker. More specifically, imagine her Fellini. It’s not hard to do, she was the assistant director on 8 ½ and her filmic attitudes on men and women are often difficult to separate from Fellini’s own. If Fellini had directed this picture, its chauvinistic qualities would be impossible to miss.
The best quality of Love and Anarchy, and really of all of Wertmüller’s work, is its pulse-thickening lyricism. It would be easy to lump this facet of her filmmaking in with Fellini, but we can see that the musicality and raw emotion of the two filmmakers’ work, equally passion, carry their own unique charms. There is hardly a moment that passes in Love and Anarchy where someone is not singing, dancing, eating, screwing, or otherwise indulging themselves in worldly pleasures. Characters stare at each other with the rigid intensity of a moviegoer. Wertmüller carries a blunt ambition to portray life in all its corporeality to her projects, and it shows in every frame.
Love and Anarchy is neither agitprop nor melodrama. It is one of the most aloof works of an aloof filmmaker. Analyzing it is akin to peeling an onion with no core. Layer after layer, tears welling up and sinuses screaming. It is a painful film, yes, and a beautiful one to boot. But more than that, it is a film that dares to hold accountable both the powerful and the powerless. The raw sexual and political tensions that hold the film together, and calculatedly tear it apart, poke and prod at the viewer in a pure cinematic fashion.