▶︎ The Basilisks is streaming on Mubi.

Lina Wertmüller’s first film is about life in one of those sleepy little Southern Italian towns picturesquely perched on a hillside, which the twentieth century has touched only superficially. The inhabitants, basking like lizards in the same sun that has baked the narrow streets for centuries, dart into the safe shadows of their homes at the first whisper of innovation – the small landowners preferring, for instance, their primeval and immobile independence to any new prosperity that might result from co-operative action.

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This review was originally published in our Spring 1964 issue

Lina Wertmüller sees the town as representing an attitude to life from which the young – in particular Antonio, Francesco and Sergio, three intelligent but ineffectual youths – cannot fully escape. Antonio, the notary’s son (played by Toni Petruzzi with a little too much spirit to make his spinelessness convincing), gets his chance when a cosmopolitan aunt carries him off to Rome, but he comes back, as an earlier scene had warned us that he would. (In that scene, he and his friends had been shown as so superstitiously parochial as to accept without amusement a young man’s claim that he had been obliged to beat a retreat from Rome because someone at home had put the evil eye on him.) As the commentary – the detached voice of the place – puts it: “Our history and our surroundings make us so.”

The remark could be applied to the film itself for, like so many of the current generation of Italian directors (Olmi, Pasolini, Rosi, Gregoretti, Zurlini), Lina Wertmüller is building on Italy’s neorealist history, and using as raw material the ambivalent face of a country that, in its infinitely varied sociology, is like a microcosm of the world. In the Italian cinema neorealism is no longer an idea but an instinct, an inherited gift that, coupled with a good script, can scarcely produce a bad film. It is not therefore as surprising as it would be anywhere else to find, in Italy, a new director who can perfectly evoke a way of life – especially when, like Lina Wertmüller, she can write her own quietly effective script.

The Lizards seems, in fact, so basically unassuming that it is very easy to fall into the error of regarding it as documentary instead of the very visual kind of drama that it is. One could scarcely make this mistake about Olmi’s stylistically similar but infinitely more complex I Fidanzati. But Lina Wertmüller’s personal contribution to a theme which at first glance seems very like that of I Vitelloni (she in fact worked with Fellini on 8½) is less marked in that to some extent she is still feeling her way.

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The Basilisks (I Basilischi, aka The Lizards, 1963)

It is, however, enough to point to the sequence which begins with an elderly woman committing suicide because her daughter-in-law has ousted her authority in the home. The woman climbs over her balcony railing and jumps to her death, despite the screams of a neighbour who had been calmly sewing in the window opposite. The film cuts to a long shot of the mourners leaving the cemetery, with thunder rumbling overhead. In pouring rain a bus winds its way into the town. The rain beats against the windows of the room where Sergio, the saddest and most nearly middle-aged of the three young men, disconsolately lounges. The door bursts open; Sergio is suddenly all joy; Antonio is back. Nothing could be further from documentary than this succession of images; nor is it symbolic except for those who like to think in symbols. To see it is, quite simply, to feel what the director wants to convey. The method might be described as impressionistic, and it is one which demands a cameraman as sensitive to visual nuances as the director herself.

Lina Wertmüller is certainly particularly fortunate in having the brilliant Gianni Di Venanzo, with his unique talent for dazzling whites, to capture the enervating beauty that complicates any preconceived attitude towards the South. Di Venanzo’s camerawork always fits the mood. For the opening scenes at lunch and during siesta hour, the camera moves either in slow pans or not at all. When Francesco is making furtive advances to a peasant girl (it is the men and not the girls who fear being compromised), the camera enters joyfully into the spirit of intricate pursuit, swooping all over the place and catching the couple from every conceivable angle, including a fascinating vertical one; yet, in the manner of the South, its attention is easily distracted, so that even at the height of the chase it can turn away temporarily to tag on to a passer-by.

All this exactly expresses the ephemeral enthusiasms of the South, for which Lina Wertmüller obviously has a kind of love-hate relationship. She shows, for instance, the bourgeois contempt for the peasantry and the claustrophobic class system as products not so much of viciousness as of the peasants’ own rather disarming pride in being resigned to their inferior lot. Here nothing changes because no one has the energy to pursue anything wholeheartedly enough: flirtations with peasant girls always end in arranged marriages to someone like the chemist’s fat and ugly daughter, and early ambitions are gently lulled to sleep. This is the mood for which Lina Wertmüller has tried to find visual expression, and there can be no doubt that she has succeeded. The Lizards may be a slight film, but it is a remarkably evocative one.

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