Ever the provocateur, Lina Wertmuller continues to challenge even later in her career with 1986’s Summer Night (Notte d’estate con profilo greco, occhi a mandorla e odore di basilico), a complicated tale of gender roles, both modern and archaic. It is the story of Fulvia Bolk (Mariangela Melato), a ruling class ecological industrialist who’s found a way to profit off of environmental clean-up. Caught up in class warfare, she elects to kidnap and hold ransom a rival and anarchist, Giuseppe Catania (Michele Placido), who in turn has previously kidnapped members of her class. Bolk is truly the boss in charge, literally descending from a helicopter to her island near Sardegna so she can bark orders, negotiate terms, and strategize class warfare – all from the safety and solitude of her villa. The strong, seemingly independent woman at the heart of this film comes at odds in distinct ways with two types of men.
The men of Summer Night fall into two categories: those exhibiting repressive masculinity, and those with more aggressive and dominant masculinity. The repressive men are Bolk’s inferiors, both professionally and romantically, and their thoughts and desires are subservient to her own. When Bolk criticizes and berates her hired help, including the blitz mercenary Turi Cantalamessa (Roberto Herlitzka) and the bumbling, useless Miki (Massimo Wertmüller), the men in her employ gripe that she’s “breaking [their] balls,” but don’t hesitate to spring up like puppy dogs whenever she has another assignment for them. In their dress and mannerisms, they are fully buttoned-up, dressed conservatively and exhibiting modest appearances on the beach under the hot Mediterranean sun. Even their physicality is weak compared to the tall, powerful figure of Bolk; Turi’s eye patch makes her question his practicality and usefulness, and Miki is somehow more powerless upon dropping his glasses. Their repressive nature is beyond sheer personality, and is inherent in their very weaknesses of the body. Even her longtime lover Frederick (John Steiner) is somehow too soft for Bolk; when he showers her with praise, proclaiming her “beautiful,” she replies genuinely that he can insult her if he so chooses. Bolk is certainly a force to be reckoned with, though she faces little to no opposition from most of the men around her.
These repressive men are an extreme foil to the aggressive masculinity and bombastic nature of Giuseppe Catania. His attitude toward Bolk is often cruel and biting, calling her a “bitch” and “whore” throughout his captivity. His physicality couldn’t be more different from Turi and Miki: his skin, body, and sweat on display as he’s captured, escapes, and returned to his holding room in little more than a loincloth and robe. His thoughts and desires emerge bluntly, demanding the company of a woman to satisfy his needs under imprisonment. His masculinity and sexual energy are on full display, and couldn’t be further from the meek men Bolk employs.
Lina Wertmüller’s films are never not challenging, and it’s thought-provoking to posit the psychology of a powerful female protagonist like Bolk falling for a hyper-aggressive man. Perhaps the more repressive men around her have developed that nature as a result of being employed by a commanding as force as her, or maybe they were selected to work for her because of their demeanor, knowing she could effectively command them, or at least not risk falling for them. Her domination over the men in her life doesn’t apply to Catania, the man she literally kidnaps, has handcuffed, and trapped on her island. Of all the men she controls, the one most likely to fall into subservience is the one who pushes back, and she surprises even herself as she grows attracted to him. While Catania is a leader of his own world, that of anarchists against the ruling class Bolk is a part of, perhaps his own behavior is forced, or at least exaggerated, by his situation; it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to view hyper-aggression as the only means of escape from captivity.
This challenging love story, in all its murkiness and contradictions, is encapsulated perfectly by the film’s finale. Bolk is kidnapped herself and brought to Catania, who takes her away on a horse. As they ride off along the beach and the sun sets, Bolk remarks, casually and without objection, that it would have been more “practical” for Catania to kidnap her with a motorcycle than on horseback. She wonders out loud whether he can even ride a horse, and the stallion bucks back and the two fall into the sand. The already-implausible fairy-tale ending of two lovers riding off into the sunset, having just kidnapped one another, is subverted in the goofball final shot. Tropes literally fall flat in a story where the captive falls for the captor and gender roles are disintegrated.