Lina Wertmüller should stand as an object lesson for anyone who thinks his or her view of cinema is unquestionably going to stand the test of time. Those of you who think that the burning question of modern film is who is the “greatest” filmmaker right this minute should step back in time and look at the position of importance that Wertmüller held in the 1970s. In the wake of this film, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), she became the absolute bee’s knees of filmmakers. You couldn’t pick up a film magazine and not find something about her in it — and usually on the cover. Today? I very much doubt you could randomly find a dozen people — even in a film school setting — who would recognize the name, nevermind having seen any of her films. What happened? Fashion? The fickleness of film fans? The human tendency to build someone up for the fun of later tearing them down? It’s probably all of these things in some measure — and it’s unfortunate. There is never a good reason for treating a filmmaker as if he or she just doesn’t matter anymore — and plenty of reasons not to.
The Seduction of Mimi was Wertmüller’s first international success — and I have a hunch that its English language title played a part in that success. This is one of those rare cases where a retitling is superior to the orignal. The Seduction of Mimi is not only a more tantalizing name than Mimi the Metal Worker, it’s actually a better description of the movie. The story really is about how Mimi (Giancarlo Giannini) is seduced by power, money, and fear into becoming…well, everything he becomes. He’s someone who starts out with nothing — not even convictions — and is constantly transformed by circumstances into something else — circumstances that are generally controlled by a powerful family (Mafia, by implication) that has a hand in everything from politics to business to the Church. It is often very funny, but always devastating.
It is also not a film that is likely to be ripe for rediscovery at this point in history, being one of the most politically incorrect things imaginable. It could be — and probably has been — cited for homophobia, misogyny, and certainly for an improper attitude on plus-size women. All of these aspects, however, seem less a part of the film than of the characters who inhabit it, but that’s a point that requires a level of thought not often found in persons wanting to be outraged. But it’s from an era in filmmaking where it wasn’t considered a bad thing to outrage the viewer — especially, if you could make the viewer laugh while doing it.
Perhaps more to the point is the fact that there’s a crudeness to Wertmüller’s filmmaking here — something exaggerated in the dreadful Fox Lorber DVD I watched for this review. It’s ragged and has an offhand feel to it that is smoothed over in her subsequent films. And — and this never changes with Wertmüller — it relies heavily on her apparently endless fascination with the admittedly soulful eyes of Giannini. (One wonders if he was the Dietrich to her von Sternberg. The level of obsession seems that great.) Sometimes this works — as when she has blink like Buster Keaton when he sees the fat woman he’s determined to seduce (for his honor) naked. Sometimes, however, it just gets old. But there’s a drive, a vibrancy, a sense of life to The Seduction of Mimi that neither time, nor changes in fashion can dim.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present The Seduction of Mimi Friday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com