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  • Ravi Swami

"The Basilisks", Dir: Lina Wertmüller, 1963

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

First films are developing into a bit of a trend here, though not intentionally - "The Basilisks" directed by Lina Wertmüller is available to view via Mubi and I watched it last night.

The accompanying image reveals little of the films' subject but what grabbed my attention more than anything else is the very recognizable form of a Bolex 16mm camera that the actress is holding and that was enough for me to investigate further :)

Lina Wertmüller is another name that I recognize in the context of 60's European cinema but I had'nt actually seen any of her films and knew little else about her.

Prior to her debut with this film, she assisted Federico Fellini on "81/2", and this served as a springboard for her own career as a prolific director.

Apart from the style, this is very evident in "The Basilisks" (Eng: "The Lizards"), which follows the lives of a group of young men living in a provincial Italian town with nothing much to do besides chasing local women and hanging about, more than echoing Fellini's "I Vitelloni", a full decade previously and which covered the same ground thematically.

Lina Wertmüller, through her cinematographer, places the town and its environs center stage, opening it up for the viewer in a way that Fellini did not - in the 1950's his social realist films were about the struggles of individuals rather than promoting tourism to the wider world. By the 1960's there is a possible shift of emphasis as film distributors built on the reputation of Fellini outside of Italy to depict the beauty of both cosmopolitan and provincial locations, with an eye on the boom in European tourism aided by cheap continental flights.

Plot-wise there isn't much to differentiate the two films, with the only difference being that where one character makes the escape to the "Big City" to seek his fortune at the conclusion of "I Vitelloni", "Antonio", one of the two central characters in "The Basilisks" is drawn to Rome by his wealthy aunt - seen above with the Bolex camera - following a visit to his town, in the process deserting his frustrated compatriots back home to ponder their inevitable future of arranged marriages and never escaping the constricting bonds of family, but at the end of the film is persuaded to stay after tasting the delights of the city.

The ending is anticipated early in the film when the group see a local barber returning from Rome who is convinced that his chances of success there have been cursed by the evil eye and by the end we realize that Antonio is shackled to the provincial town he came from by his own narrow world view and lack of education - where Fellini's films ends on an upbeat note of hope for the future of Italian youth in the immediate Post War years, Wertmüller's reflects the mood of the 60's by being somewhat cynical of the rising economies in the big cities and a drift away from traditional values, good or bad - a social group in the town is divided into those who still support Fascism and those who support Socialist ideals.

I found it a harder watch than "I Vitelloni", possibly since stylistically the films could not be more different - where Fellini's storytelling style is more conventionally "cinematic" and is clearly a scripted fiction based partly on fact, Wertmüller's appears to be influenced by Robert Bresson or Eric Rohmer, giving the film a documentary feel and a certain edge, with unscripted segments by non-actors and the scripted narrative necessary to tell the story.

There are some interesting shots, in particular a scene where "Stefano", the group's "Lothario", follows a young woman through the streets of the town, leading to a high vantage point shot of a cobbled street with the camera rotated 90's to take in the breadth of the location, so that Stefano and the young woman traverse the frame from left of frame to right rather than from bottom of frame to top, striking because of the duration of the shot and resulting in something that feels very experimental and contemporary in the context of smart phone cameras.

"The Basilisks", Dir: Lina Wertmüller, 1963

Criterion Channel.


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