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Rushing Into the Future: Close-Up on "The Basilisks"

Lina Wertmüller's debut feature is a nuanced portrait of a changing Italy.
Celluloid Liberation Front
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Lina Wertmüller's The Basilisks is showing on MUBI starting January 2, 2021 in most countries in the series First Films First.
In Tutto a posto e niente in ordine (2012) (“Everything in its right place and nothing in order”), the autobiography of Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich (in the annals of cinema and for brevity’s sake, Lina Wertmüller), the director recounts the fortuitous way her debut feature came to be. “It was 1961, I was going to visit Francesco Rosi on the set of Salvatore Giuliano with [Italian film critic] Tulio Kezich and on our way we decided to stop by Palazzo San Gervasio,” the director reminisced, “my father’s native village.” “For me,” Wertmüller continued, “it was the discovery of a world.” Struck by this corner of southern Italy seemingly untouched by the economic boom, where modernity was simultaneously coveted and repudiated, Wertmüller, exhorted by Kezich, wrote the screenplay for I basilischi (The Basilisks, 1963) in a week. Produced on a shoestring budget, the film was shot by Gianni di Venanzo, the Director of Photography of (1963) whom Wertmüller had met on set where she’d worked with Fellini as third unit director. Unable to afford real actors,  The Basilisks mainly features non-professionals that Wertmüller directed with remarkable aptitude considering this was her first time in the director’s chair. The National Institute of Social Security (INPS) provided the crew with free housing for the duration of the shooting which didn’t last long given the budgetary constraints. The unpremeditated genesis of The Basilisks shines through a film suspended between ethnographic satire and impressionistic drama, carrying the embryonic traits of Wertmüller’s cinema to come.
At the loose narrative center of the film we find two friends, Antonio (Antonio Petruzzi) and Francesco (Stefano Satta Flores), accompanied in their daily drifting by another friend, Sergio (Sergio Ferranino). With neither misanthropic detachment nor neorealist piety, the director follows their daily lives as youth gives way to adulthood and the pressing dilemma of staying or leaving hovers over all of their heads. The travelling shots along the village’s main thoroughfare stage microcosmic plays where rural life is observed in all its ceremonial affection and patriarchal clownery. Antonio and Francesco chase young women (with their eyes mostly), partake in that age-old form of semi-fictional storytelling that is gossip and stare at their existences as one would at a dead-end street. “Politics here is devoid of both ideas and ideals,” says one to the other, “it’s just a way to divide up money and power.” To stay and change things or to leave in order to try changing them from afar is the idealistic quandary they’re faced with. Rome, the faraway capital, acquires in their conversations a quasi-mystical status, a cosmopolitan metropolis where opportunities and degeneracy, or supposed such, are equally alluring. Even the nearby town of Bari, compared to the small village where the entire film takes place, is a sinful mirage, a gateway from the claustrophobic provincialism where Antonio manages to escape for a single day. “He could have watched the half-clad pinups of the variety shows on television,” says Francesco’s mother, “he didn’t have to go all the way to Bari.” Though only mentioned in passing, television brought the modern consumer dream to even those corners that were effectively deprived of it. In a country where, at the time, most people only spoke their own dialect (but could understand Italian) it was television more than anything else that unified a deeply heterogeneous nation. Thanks to TV, modernity, which in Italy as everywhere else was an inequitable affair, upheld itself as a vision rather than a concrete reality. The Basilisks unsentimentally captures a liminal space and time in contemporary Italian history when traditional society, hypnotized by the pied piper of capitalist progress, was hesitantly rushing into the future.
Wertmüller playfully dissects not only social habits and tics but also classes, problematizing the cinematographic postcards of the South that Italian cinema had produced until then (with the exception of Visconti and De Seta). Antonio is the son of a petit bourgeois, a public notary, while Francesco comes from a peasant family. The “southern condition” in The Basilisks is not a natural, undifferentiated circumstance that affects everyone equally. The Italian South, left at the margins of the “Economic Miracle,” is impoverished not only by the industrial North but also by the local ruling class that has replaced the old feudal aristocracy. In one scene, a decadent noblewoman longs for “the good ol’ days” when Croatian prisoners worked the land so efficiently (and cheaply). The director avoids any romantic idealization of backwardness and at the same time doesn’t look at modernity as the salvific event that will emancipate Southern Italy from its ills. Alternating farcical tones with more dramatic drifts, Wertmüller captures with sociological precision the complexity, contradictions and theatrics of small-town life. In The Basilisks, as she would often do in her later work, the director looks at the idiotic and comic impotence of men with critical compassion. It is not by empowering female characters that Wertmüller marked her point of view, but by portraying male chauvinism in all its infantile weakness. In a decidedly unusual twist for pre-'68 Italian cinema, the director stages the suicide of a middle-aged housewife, demolishing thus the folkloristic myths of a supposedly harmonious traditional society. The scene is both piercing and fleeting, almost a detour in a film that for the most part remains playful, however bitterly so.
Wertmüller’s opera prima makes for a contrapuntal double bill with Visconti’s The Leopard which was released the same year. Both films are set in Southern Italy and look at the many significant ways things stay the same even when epochal changes are taking place. One is a big budget epic while the other is an unrehearsed sketch and yet both are incisive works that reiterate the possibilities that cinema has when looking at history on the macroscopic as well as the microscopic level. The Basilisks also inaugurates Wertmüller’s life-long preoccupation with the socio-cultural and economic divide between Southern and Northern Italy (most famously immortalized in The Seduction of Mimì [1972]). While her later work will be characterized by a caricatural and comics-like formalism, her debut feature is traversed by an unscripted streak that feels less expository and more open to nuances.
The year 1963 saw the release of a string of remarkable films by (relatively) young directors who, while not belonging to any official(ized) “wave,” injected Italian cinema with a healthy dose of insolence. Another remarkable debut from that year was that of Tinto Brass with Chi lavora è perduto (“Who Works is Lost”), a lyrical ode to anti-work that thematically anticipated more than a decade the demands of the extra-parliamentary left. Factory automation and workers’ militancy was the subject of the science-fictional comedy Omicron by Ugo Gregoretti (the “G.” in the previous year omnibus film Ro.Go.Pa.G.), a half-accomplished film that nonetheless presciently touched upon themes that were to become very topical only a few years later. In 1963 Dino Risi’s I mostri was also released, a comical compendium of archetypical Italian characters ruthlessly portrayed in all their mediocre monstrosity. Risi brought the idiosyncratic irreverence usually associated with auteur cinema to the very heart of commercial cinema as did Marco Ferreri with the rom-com in his incendiary L’ape regina (“The Conjugal Bed”). Along with Wertmüller’s debut, these films both registered and anticipated the early signs of the seismic changes that awaited Italian society outside movie theaters as the 60s drew to an explosive end. Of all of the protagonists of that cinematographic era that made Italian cinema great and memorable, Lina Wertmüller, at 92 years of age, is one of the few left alive.

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