Film Review: Behind the White Glasses

A spry, if sometimes scattered, celebration of groundbreaking Italian director Lina Wertmuller.
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Anybody coming to Valerio Ruiz’s Behind the White Glasses looking for a seminar in the work of a seminal filmmaker will be disappointed. That’s not to suggest that Ruiz doesn’t show a great appreciation of her subject, Italian auteur Lina Wertmuller. A longtime collaborator of Wertmuller’s, Ruiz displays just the right mixture of admiring study and cheeky jabs to keep the film from spinning into hagiography. Even though Wertmuller’s status as the first woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar would certainly justify a reverential approach, given how her rough-and-tumble comedies shook up cinema in the 1960s and ’70s, this sideways angle feels appropriate.

For those showing up without much background information, Ruiz sidewinds around explaining why we should be watching. Instead, the film lets the nearly 80-year-old Wertmuller, a splendidly cheery raconteur, spin the tale of her life and career in fits and starts. She is buttressed by warm recollections from a rich trove of interviewees ranging from Italian marquee names Giancarlo Giannini and Sophia Loren to more offbeat collaborators like Harvey Keitel and Rutger Hauer to Martin Scorsese (in his latter-day incarnation as peppy cinema-studies professor) and film critic John Simon (an early champion of her work).

A theatre actress who split herself between musical comedy and more socially conscious work, Wertmuller was introduced to the maestro of Italian cinema, Federico Fellini, and somehow hired as assistant director on his 1962 masterwork, 8 1/2; unfortunately for Felliniphiles, she doesn’t have any good gossip from the set. But Ruiz does incorporate some behind-the-scenes footage Wertmuller shot during the filming. Breezy as ever, Wertmuller plays off the whole experience as just a lucky break, calling herself “lousy” at the job. But lousy or not, the following year she unveiled her first film, The Lizards.

Wertmuller’s early work, while well-received, threatened to pigeonhole her as a socially conscious filmmaker. Appropriately for someone who says that “directing is always an adventure,” she moved instead into a brasher style of musical comedy, writing the lyrics herself and enlisting the music of Fellini’s collaborator Nino Rota. Outside of a few tantalizing clips, unfortunately, this period gets short shrift to get to the hits: Wertmuller’s rambunctious and politically tinged 1970s commedia del’arte with her acting muse Giannini like The Seduction of Mimi, Love & Anarchy, Swept Away and Seven Beauties.

It’s only in this stretch of the film where Behind the White Glasses makes the argument for Wertmuller’s cultural and artistic relevance. Even though the film rather incredibly doesn’t grapple much with her assuredly hard-fought status as a woman filmmaker, the enthusiastic participation by Giannini and some well-chosen clips of her works’ audacious meshing of sexed-up carnival comedy with political overtones show why for a time she was an essential part of the cultural conversation. Her maximalist tendencies, always throwing in more ideas and more dialogue, might have weighed down some of her filmography but certainly appears to be well-suited to her work in opera.

Wertmuller is more the central character here than her work. Behind the White Glasses isn’t constructed out of static interviews and clips. Instead, it works from a series of set-pieces, each with its own mood. There’s Wertmuller’s city home, a lushly decorated maze of Arts and Crafts lamps and writing nooks, to her country house, a riot of objets d’art and rooms designed like chambers for a period romance, to the sparkling coastline of Sardinia, where she shot Swept Away. Ruiz is happy to move away from her ostensible subject and already thinly structured narrative to tour the vacation house, which is like a museum to the memory of Wertmuller’s late husband, the set designer Enrico Job. The mixture of pathos and beauty alongside Wertmuller’s upbeat and clowning spirit feels as good a reflection of her artistic approach as anything the interviewees have to say.

Behind the White Glasses is sketchy as biography but still a fun and jumpy ode to brazenly unbound and cross-disciplinary artistry.

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