It was a very exciting evening: back in 1973, going out to the art cinema in Shadyside with a handsome date to view the first Lina Wertmuller movie to hit the States (her first film to hit Pittsburgh, at least). Love & Anarchy, starred Giancarlo Giannini, the Italian actor who worked with Wertmuller in most of her films made in the 70s and 80s. Most remarkable for me, however, a film student at the time, was the opportunity to become familiar with the work of the director, Lina Wertmuller, a woman with international status who had apprenticed with Federico Fellini.
A loyal follower, I saw each of her films when they came out but missed this one in 1996: THE NYMPH. Viewing it today, on catch-up, the film reads as oversexed; over charged with male and female, the yin and yang, and so extreme, that it can exist only on the edge, not in the mainstream, of film history.
A leftist Italian filmmaker, Lena Wertmuller, isn’t know for her subtleties. Nonetheless, THE NYMPH lacks the political cohesion of mot of her work and therefore evolves as a coarse and troubling film, not a silk thread of a story slathered with colorful elegance and innuendo.There’s a strong possibility that after viewing it you will feel both sad and angry for its having knocked you over the head with its extremes. Or, you might choose to allow it to assault you with its stock caricatures, its cartoonish situations, its primary colors, its harshness, and its commedia dell’arte texture (conventional plot line that involves themes of adultery, jealousy, corrupt priests, older men obsessed with young nubile girls, and love.)
The point of THE NYMPH is to push our face into political, sexual, and economic injustice in a small town in Campania during WWII and to question the assumptions people make about class and destiny. The main character, the young girl, Miluzza, is the daughter of the town whore. Her father is a cuckold tailor, who desperately loves his philandering wife, a wild woman who can’t help bedding the soldiers who occupy their village. Because Miluzza is the daughter of a sex addicted mom, everyone in town assumes she’ll end up following the same path and therefore she’s up for grabs (“If your mom does it with me, then why not you too?”) As she emerges into adolescence, the townfolk have a good time with Miluzza–peering at her barely covered genitals, rubbing her backside, wondering about the odors on her bicycle seat. It’s as if she’s a delicious cake almost ready to be eaten. Who will get to her first? In a rather disturbing scene, we see her performing one of her weekly chores, which is to take care of the flesh under the old parish priest’s robes as he dithers in his wheelchair. She’s about thirteen years old, her eyes sparkle, and she never stops smiling. Wertmuelller films the scene through a magical scrim that illuminates Miluzza’s innocence within a harsh, rather threatening, environment. Despite all the grabbing and finangling around her to get in her pants, she manages to be polite, yet at times frustrated: a flower untouched by fascism, bigotry, inequality and insane lust.
Eventually true love rewards and liberates Miluzza. Not only that, but the virginity you thought had surely gone down the drain–in encounters with the priest, the boys in town who try to rape her, or the factory owner boss who dresses her up like a wife–remains intact. And despite her lover’s family objections to her low class and assumed lack of integrity, Miluzza triumphs in her sweetness and is rewarded for having kept her legs clamped shut during the war, despite all the probing.
When a filmmaker controls the finer visuals and story line, we grasp the intention before it assaults us. That’s not Wertmuller’s style. She controls –in a broad way–and goes for the throat . WEPT AWAY, THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, SEVEN BEAUTIES and LOVE AND ANARCHY were anarchistic, refreshing, provocative, and feminist without being droning, and presented the director’s personal political commitment. THE NYMPH, which we can call a coming of age film, involves casual and violent sexual encounters, and despite the main character‘s eventual triumph and humanity, the film is difficult to watch. In the end the main character gains love of a man who treats her like a daughter.
What was Wertmuller’s political commitment here? Miluzza is rewarded for holding on to her virginity, and in doing so wins love, commitment, and position in a rather wealthy landowning family. The wolfish caricatures ( men and women), the over-dose of camera shots of Miluzza’s backside, the predictable even soap opera-ish story line are extreme reaches. Wertmuller relies on charged visual images of female sexuality to carry the film and those images have not aged well. In fact, the film give off a whiff of desperation and political contradiction.
In ITALIan with subtitles
AVAILABLE on DVD