Viva l’anarchia: Lina Wertmüller (1928-2021)

In grotesque realism… the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all the people. As such it is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world; it makes no pretense to renunciation of the earthy, or independence of the earth and the body. We repeat: the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of these words, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed…. This exaggeration has a positive, assertive character. The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance. Manifestations of this life refer not to the isolated biological individual, not to the private, egotistic ‘economic man,’ but to the collective ancestral body of all the people.

Mikhail Bakhtin, writing of the grotesque in carnival, Rabelais and His World

Politics is never an excuse. Politics is a situation. Of course, the poor and the rich have always existed, and it is around this that politics was born. It is a situation of contrast, collision, debate, of hatred, and also of love.

Lina Wertmüller, from the short documentary, Lina Wertmüller, une cinéaste d’amour et d’anarchie (Vimeo)

If we may venture a claim about a central idea in the films Lina Wertmüller, it is that they express the impossibility of politics without love – such a politics would be reduced to the management of life and the extraction its energy –, and of love without politics – love is shaped and winnowed through the many layers of relations of power that mark everyday life. It is through this lens that Wertmüller reads political ideologies and human behaviour and agency, a lens that can only reveal and revel in tensions, incoherencies and contradictions. If her films defy ideological purity, to the dismay of her critics, she turns the accusation back on them – for those who are willing to see –, unmasking the demands for “purity” as the greatest form of violence, because it can tolerate no disorder, no wild life, no anarchy.

There is no promise of final resolution or redemption in Wertmüller’s work. Her films are intensely political, but not in the sense of offering up agitprop manifestos or declarations about what is to be done. Instead, she tells stories of individuals struggling to realise themselves against worlds that surpass them, which they never fully understand or even begin to control. They accordingly act blindly, but also in the only way that her characters have learned to struggle in adversity; a struggle that therefore can only be incomplete, contradictory, and forever renewed.

Wertmüller, through what may be called an aesthetics of the grotesque, signals the illusions of human perfectibility and progress, illusions which end in regimes of fear. Before the latter, it is her anarchist “man in disorder” that lights a path.

Lina Wertmüller died this last December 9th. We take this moment to celebrate her art of “love and anarchy”.     

I would like to stress my horror at these attempted assassinations. These acts are both evil and stupid as they harm the cause that they are meant to serve… But those assassins are also saints and heroes… When their extreme gesture is forgotten, we shall celebrate the ideal which inspired them.

Errico Malatesta, as cited in Amore e Anarchia

Lina Wertmüller’s film, Amore e Anarchia, is available online with english subtitles here.

Wertmüller’s films were popular enough in the english speaking world, in the 1970’s, to generate a considerable amount of written reflection. We share below a brief selection of articles and essays on her work.

“Lina Wertmüller”, from World Film Directors, V. II. Ed., John Wakeman. The H.W. Wilson Co., NY, 1988

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “The Italian Cinema and the Italian Working Class”, International Labor and Working-Class History, (2001)

Grace Russo Bullaro, “Lina Wertmüller’s ‘Man in Disorder’ and the Idea
of Perfectibility in Seven Beauties”, Italian Culture (1997)

Grace Russo Bullaro, “What’s an Anarchist?”: Exploring the Boundaries of the Personal and Political in Wertmüller’s “Love and Anarchy” (2001)

Claudia Consolati, “Grotesque Bodies, Fragmented Selves: Lina Wertmüller’s Women in ‘Love and Anarchy'”, Italian Women Filmmakers and the Gendered Screen (2013)

Darragh O’Donoghue, “Laughter in the Dark: The Black Comedy of Lina Wertmüller”, Cineaste, (2018)

Lila Bullen-Smith, “Crisis-Women: Prostitution And Capitalist Modernity In Lina Wertmüller’s ‘Love And Anarchy’”, Another Gaze (2019)

The Guardian obituary.

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