Wertmuller returns, without the rage

October 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

How cruelly and whimsically blow the winds of fashion in movie culture. In the 1970s, Lina Wertmuller, with her radical edge and her weird glasses, sailed out of the heart of the Italian film post neo-realism blast, along with Antonioni and Fellini and Bertolucci, and redefined world cinema. Wertmuller's principal contributions remain in the canon: her Marxist critique on feminism, "Swept Away" (1975), and her mind-blowing and cynical trip through concentration camp culture, "Seven Beauties." (1976) She was the toast of the world.

And then . . . silence.

She herself can't explain where it went or why, but in the '80s and particularly the '90s, no American company would even import her films. Who knows what "Saturday, Sunday, Monday" or "Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It's Love" were?

Now she's back with the astonishing "Ciao, Professore!" which is playing at the Charles this week in rotation with "Mi Vida Loca." I say astonishing not for its passion, its political rage, its visual beauty, all of which it has none; I say astonishing for its . . . cuddliness.

Perhaps she's mellowed; perhaps this kind of sweet project was her only access back to the big time. Whatever, the film turns out to be a classic American genre piece, the teacher movie -- like "Conrack" or "Up the Down Staircase" or even "To Sir, With Love." It's about the so-called sophisticate from the big city who comes to a rural district and goes through a predictable culture shock before he learns how truly adorable his new charges are.

However, the dichotomy that defines the film isn't really urban- rural, but northern-southern, as it applies to Italy. Paolo Villaggio, wondrous cuddly bear of a man, plays Mr. Sperelli, down from Rome to educate the unruly kids of the ramshackle village of Corzano.

He quickly discovers that most of his students are petty hustlers and thieves, totally caught up in a barter economy. There's not much to surprise in the film, but it is certainly filled with warmth as he tries to woo them back to higher education. It's not "Seven Beauties," but does have seven or eight tiny winning moments.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Ciao, Professore!"

Starring Paolo Villaggio

Directed by Lina Wertmuller

Released by Miramax

Unrated

** 1/2

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