Thursday 7 January 2021

Provincial blues: "The Basilisks"

Here's a filmography that could do with a lot more love. In the 1970s, the Italian writer-director Lina Wertmüller (born - I kid you not - Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich) was arguably the world's most celebrated female director, becoming the first woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for her work on 1975's Seven Beauties. In the half-century since, however, her work has fallen out of circulation and fashion. Rights issues may have played a part, and maybe the titles sounded offputtingly florid to some dunderheads: 1983's A Joke of Destiny, Lying in Wait Around the Corner Like a Bandit was followed by 1986's Summer Night with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil. But who could resist taking a peek at 1996's The Blue-Collar Worker and the Hairdresser in a Whirl of Sex and Politics, or 2004's Too Much Romance... It's Time for Stuffed Peppers? Either way, it speaks ill of our gatekeepers that it's now harder to access Wertmüller's 1974 Marxist desert-island movie Swept Away than it is Guy Ritchie-and-Madonna's far-less-Marxist rehash of 2002, one of the most notorious flops in cinema history. 

This week, MUBI issues a restoration of The Basilisks, Wertmüller's debut of 1963. This is a smalltown drama, of the kind the director's countrymen Fellini and Bellocchio began their careers with, but it's more than typically interested in structures, be that daily routines (the main characters are introduced taking a siesta) or wider societal frameworks. Our protagonists are identified at the launch of a social club set up by by a nascent arts collective: three loafers in their early twenties - two of them dandier than the hangdog, prematurely balding third - who see this institution as a springboard to the big time in neighbouring cities, but also a means to attract the girls they spend their afternoons ineffectually eyeing up. To some degree, what Wertmüller was filming was a stifled New Wave: what might have happened had cinephiles like Rivette and Rohmer never arrived in Paris, and never made the connections that enabled them to flourish creatively. It's a story of promise unfulfilled, and those are more common than tales of people escaping small towns alive.

The look is broadly familiar from Italian films of the period: dark-haired signors and signorinas caught against chalky, whitewashed backdrops. What's distinctive is the framing, and the tone. If early Fellini was above all else horny, and early Bellocchio puckishly satirical, early Wertmüller proves rather more fond and amused: she sees the effect girls have on these boys, how they tie themselves in knots or otherwise beat themselves up in the absence of any more constructive means of spending their days. There's a lot of aimless walking and talking, Wertmüller's method of flagging that her characters have nowhere else to be. (She was surely outlining an Italian equivalent of the French flâneur.) With no easy way out of this town, the boys' frustration becomes both funny and poignant: watch them latching onto anybody who sweeps in from the city. Wertmüller was getting at what it is to be young and try and make your way in a place people go to grow old, to want to make a loud noise in a deathly quiet spot. 

Yet The Basilisks is also a wise enough debut to spot that its protagonists occupy a unique position within their community, as lofty (and presumably lefty) observers: between gawping at the opposite sex, they see what their fellow townsfolk sweep under the carpet, don't discuss, refuse to acknowledge, be that an attack on a young woman, or why the local labourers have gone out on strike. The social club we enter at the beginning is notionally a cinema club, yet we never see the protagonists at the movies, as Fellini would doubtless have shown us; for Wertmüller, there's more than enough drama going on amid this small town's mazy backstreets. There are rough edges here - occasionally self-conscious supporting performances, the overdubbing that was such a blight on this period, a painful Europop cover of "Let's Twist Again" - but The Basilisks feels unusually comprehensive for an early miniature: Wertmüller gives us a panorama of this place before painting in the details, and then signing off with a metaphysical flourish. She, at least, was ready to set out into the wider world.

The Basilisks is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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