Sunday, July 2, 2023

From Love and Anarchy to Prizzi’s Honor: When Politics, Romance and Family Collide

Scene with Tripolina and Tunin
As a film buff, it was about time for me to finally enter the wonderful world of Lina Wertmuller. My entry of choice was her classic Love And Anarchy and I was left very much impressed. Although Fellinesque in outlook and style, the focus here is more political in nature. Essentially, it is exactly about the concepts mentioned in the title (at least in its abbreviated one), namely the complex intersection between following one’s heart and opting for radical and dangerous political action. The stakes are high because it is set in Fascist Italy and political opinions and choices do carry a death sentence with them. The original subtitle “this morning at 10, in via dei Fiori, in the well-known brothel” adds more context by clarifying and narrowing down the setting in terms of its physical location.

In this film, Tunin is sent by anarchists on a mission to kill Benito Mussolini and he receives help from the influential prostitute Salome who knows (in the biblical sense) various members of the political elite including the guard responsible for the dictator’s security trail. With the inside scoop and details combined with sharpshooting skills of Tunin, this looks like the perfect team to carry out and execute the assassination plot.

And yet, it gets messy. Tunin is internally struggling with the fact that this event could and would most likely and most probably lead to his death. But he is driven by a desire for revenge. This is briefly shown and alluded to at the inception of the film where Tunin is visited by an older friend who tells him of his plan to free the people by killing the ruling dictator but later ends up being killed by the military. This enrages Tunin, and he sets out to exact revenge on the main and principal source and agent at the top, Mussolini the head of state himself.

In the brothel, he is aided and guided by Salome who has not only her own vendetta, that is, the death of her to-be husband but also her intense personal hatred towards the Fascists. From the onset, Tunin, on the other hand, is less driven by elaborate political ideology but rather it becomes a matter of personal importance to him. His friend should not have died in vain. When Tunin ends up falling in love with Tripolina, one of the working prostitutes, he finds himself in a conflict between his desire for love and his desire for loyalty and vengeance.

This is intensified by his upbringing as simple and average-looking country folk with freckles and very limited experience in terms of love and lovemaking. At the same time, Tripolina herself has had her own share of suffering, and as a sex worker, she seems to have given up any hope of love and romance. Deep inside, she feels not worthy of love and so is confounded by this unusual and unexpected attention that she receives from Tunin who is not solely interested in her body but also in her mind, soul, and overall well-being. and happiness.

As she finally lets down her guard, she becomes vulnerable, as does he in the name of love. In a moving scene, Tunin who has lost his head and heart to this young woman shows up one morning burning with jealousy and pushes away one of Tripolina’s prospective clients while agreeing to pay the brothel owner to be and spend time with his beloved during her regular working hours. In this way, he prevents her from being with someone or anyone else. Tripolina then asks for two days off as they are planning to spend some time together. She does not know yet what is awaiting her at the end of this brief vacation.

As they spend time together roaming the city, walking through parks, and dining at restaurants, she is spotted by one of her customers. He makes fun of their innocent romantic date and then he lets his female companions know about them, and they whisper and gossip about this seemingly odd couple. It makes them very uncomfortable and hinders them from enjoying their otherwise beautiful and wonderful time together.

Tormented by feelings of guilt but also worried about impending death, Tunin then confesses his secret plan to her. As Tripolina unlike Salome tends to be much less interested in political affairs, she wants to preserve their romance; if that is essentially doomed, then at the very least she wants to save the life of her beloved. She is unwavering in this and after spending their final night together, she decides not to wake him up on the ill-fated morning of destiny when he is supposed to go out and kill.

I believe I have spoiled enough of the movie already and will not give away the ending, but I believe it underscores the conflict between love (the heart and passion) and anarchy (the head, anger, resentment, and supposed and anticipated liberation). The film is not condemning but rather justifying progressive politics, but it is reminding us that it often comes at a personal cost and sacrifice, including one’s own life and the lives of those who love us.

In the context of a dictatorship, it also has a moral underpinning to stand up and fight for one’s rights and human rights and personal freedom in general. And yet, the question that the film will leave you with is not whether the means justify the aim but whether it is worth sacrificing human lives for that aim. I have written about this at an earlier date, and you are free to read it here.

I think that human lives are worth more than causes or political outcomes, but I am aware that there are extreme times when one is called upon to fight or defend oneself and one’s loved ones. But if that is the case, it should be done not on a whim but with a full understanding of the seriousness and gravity of the situation and the consequences they would entail, not only personally but also the effects it would have on family, friends, and lovers. Tunin’s decision though seemingly selfless is at the same time selfish as it does not take into account the feelings, needs, and desires of Tripolina. Then there is the whole issue of anarchy, which is not, as is commonly believed, a form and expression of freedom but rather a different and more haphazard form of violence and tyranny, but more on this elsewhere.

Scene with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner about to kiss

Now let’s move on to the second bill: John Huston’s bizarre black comedy Prizzi’s Honor. This movie is about a mob world that would feel at home within the vicinities of The Godfather. From the start, we have a pledge to family and loyalty that is tied with honor and comes with protection. Jack Nicholson plays hitman Charley Partanna who is good and very efficient at his job until he meets Irene Walker (if that is indeed her real name) played by Kathleen Turner, and he falls head over heels in love with her. As this stormy and intense relationship appears to be reciprocated, they even talk about impending marriage and, in fact, follow up on the impulse to do so.

But Charley does not know that she is in fact a hired assassin as well. She has conned and robbed the Prizzi family of a substantial amount of money mainly due to her attractive looks but of course also due to her street-savvy smarts. Yet, one thing is clear: she is certainly not in the mobster’s good books. So there is obvious reluctance and resistance to accepting her into the family. As a matter of fact, Charley is later tasked to kill her for the good of and in the name of the family. At the same time, she has been hired by another source within the same family to kill Charley, and she is promised to be paid handsomely for it.

While this plays out as a pitch-dark comedy, it is far from the light and playful mood that accompanied movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith nor does it have the satirical, hysterical, and vitriolic excesses of The War of the Roses. In some sense, Prizzi’s Honor, which is based on a novel, has a rather serious tone and underpinning underneath it all. Although the characters are important and are generally well-drawn, it is the theme of honor that pervades it all.

How much would you be able and willing to do for honor and to preserve family name and reputation? Would you be ready to kill for honor? In fact, at the beginning of the film, we meet a so-called dishonorable person, the wonderful Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in what may be her best role as the rejected mob daughter. She is Charley’s ex, but while they were together, she cheated on him with another guy and even lived with him “in sin”.

For a traditional Catholic family, this is unforgivable, so she has basically been not only dishonored but also disowned and disenfranchised at least from the point of view of her family. Her father will not even acknowledge her existence, let alone talk to her or accept and forgive her. At first, she is struggling to get his attention. Ironically, it is family loyalty and gentle but insistent and firm pressure from other mobsters that make him reconsider forgiving his daughter and letting her enter the family circle again.

And yet, she is not as innocent after all. She gets involved in her own type of personal vendetta in which both her father and her ex-husband are topping her list. The ending is in line with the whole movie itself by being bizarre and unexpected. It may or may not be satisfying for the viewer, but it shows and underscores how we can all get ensnared in different ideas and ideologies and that we may lose our will if not our mind in the process and along the way.

How important is honor in one’s life and to what extent does it guide our actions and decisions? And what is meant by honor? I believe that honor is quite different from dignity, and yet, the two can often be confounded. Dignity is something that we all have and should have, and it must be respected; it is a human right based on equality simply by the act of being a living sentient being and deserving to be treated as one no matter who we are or what we have done.

Yet honor is a more elusive and slippery concept, and, in many cases, I believe that it can stray and delude us and even misguide us. At times, not unlike pride, it can be used for good but it can also swerve and sway into arrogance and hubris. For instance, sex before marriage was and is still frowned upon by many cultures and traditions. The virginity of a female (but conversely not of a male) would then be considered a disgrace to a family’s honor and reputation. So much so that young girls have been banned and even killed because of it, a distorted practice referred to as honor killing. It goes without saying that there is no honor in killing.

Yet, at the same time, we are told to honor our commitments, duties, and parents. But what if what our society, parents, and communities are telling us goes against what we are and who we would like to be? What if we choose love over obligation, duty, and honor and go against the norms of our society and culture? What if we always say yes to love and hold it up as the ultimate guideline for all our decisions? We may condemn Romeo and Juliet for going against their respective families’ wishes and desires, but did they not end up bringing about peace to futile fighting and strife and becoming a symbol of eternal and doomed love everywhere? In the end, we must choose what matters most to us and to our lives.