Saturday, April 22, 2017

Film reviews—Lina Wertmuller Documentary “Behind the White Glasses”; Quad Cinema Retro “Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble”

Behind the White Glasses
Directed by Valerio Ruiz
Opens April 21, 2017
Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble
Series runs through May 1, 2017
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY

Director Lina Wertmuller in Behind the White Glasses

The first and last images of Behind the White Glasses are of now 88-year-old director Lina Wertmuller typing furiously on her keyboard, epitomizing her five-decades long career of frantic and garish but intelligent and humane movies, with many unfilmed scripts cluttering up shelves in her office.

Documentary director Valerio Ruiz has made an admiring portrait of an artist whose often impressive work is an outgrowth of her gregarious personality, something which has shown itself throughout her 30-odd films, stuffed to the gills with so much vitality, aliveness and richly rendered real life that some label them too cartoonish or gaudy. Admittedly, that’s been both her great strength and weakness. At her peak (especially in her mid-‘70s classics The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, Swept Away…, and culminating masterpiece Seven Beauties), Wertmuller was in firm control of whatever she put onscreen, much like her idol (and former employer) Federico Fellini, another Italian director whose effortless mastery of form provoked detractors to complain about his indifference to content, however unfair that criticism was.

Ruiz’s documentary spends much of its time discussing those four essential Wertmuller films, along with some of the others, misfires like A Night Full of Rain or Blood Feud. (It’s worth noting that Wertmuller’s Italian titles are almost impossibly wordy—another sign of her attempts to stuff as much as possible into every aspect of her films, even their titles.) And many talking heads enthusiastically and emphatically talk about Wertmuller, from her greatest collaborator, actor Giancarlo Giannini; her nephew, actor Massimo Wertmuller; and even a still-glamorous Sophia Loren, to her biggest American fans: director Martin Scorsese, actor Harvey Keitel (who made a film with her in Sicily) and critic John Simon, who famously raved about Seven Beauties, one of the rare movies to live up to his exacting standards.

But mainly Ruiz smartly concentrates on Lina herself, who engagingly reminisces about a career that began as Fellini’s assistant on 8-1/2, her brief adventures in America after becoming famous and how her life was shattered by the death of her beloved husband (and set designer for her films) Enrico Job, by all accounts a perfectly lovely man and extraordinary artist. When Wertmuller wordlessly walks through rooms in their vacation house filled with mementos of Job’s brilliant career, it’s an overwhelmingly emotional scene worthy of one of her films.

Behind the White Glasses is showing at the newly renovated and recently re-opened Quad Cinema in Manhattan as part of the opening retrospective Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble. Although far from complete—it’s too bad that films needing reappraisal like Saturday, Sunday and Monday (especially its three-hour TV version) and others rarely if ever seen in New York, like her last feature, 2004’s Too Much Romance...It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers, starring Sophia Loren and F. Murray Abraham, are missing from the schedule—the series serves as a fine big screen overview of an important if erratic artist.

Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties

If you see only one Wertmuller film, make it the sardonic, vulgar, hilarious and ultimately shattering Seven Beauties, containing Giannini’s stupendous and unforgettable performance. But there are hidden gems like Sotto Sotto, a tough but tender 1984 comedy about a wife who, after falling for another woman, must deal with her husband’s uncontrollable anger after discovering it’s not another man. Also included are her first two features, the clunky but interesting The Lizards (1963) and Let’s Talk About Men (1964).

If in recent years she has been relegated to an answer in an Oscar quiz (she was the first female nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties), Behind the White Glasses and Female Trouble give Wertmuller her due as an inventive, passionate and endlessly entertaining filmmaker.

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