Times Staff Writer

"Summer Night" (at the Beverly Center Cineplex) is great news for anyone who ever admired Lina Wertmuller. The director of "Seven Beauties" has made a sharp turnaround from a steady 10-year decline with this bubbly, sexy comedy, which she calls the second part of a trilogy that began with "Swept Away."

Significantly, "Summer Night" reunites Wertmuller with fiery, beautiful Mariangela Melato, who co-starred with Giancarlo Giannini in "Swept Away" and in two more of Wertmuller's best films, "The Seduction of Mimi" and "Love and Anarchy." Melato is clearly Wertmuller's most effective alter ego, an actress with enough talent and personality to sustain Wertmuller's volcanic wit, passion and bombast.

As tan, blond and glamorous as Lana Turner, Melato is Fulvia, a self-made tycoon (and, surprisingly, an ecological crusader) and one of the richest people in the world. Fed up with the terrorists who plague Italy's rich, she hires Turi (Roberto Herlitzka), formerly of the CIA, to abduct the No. 1 professional kidnaper, Beppe (Michele Placido), and demand $100 million in ransom from his gang. (Never mind that Turi lost a hand in Tehran and an eye in Nicaragua in the line of duty.)

It's the meeting of two of a kind, as Fulvia unleashes her right-wing harangues upon Beppe, who wears a chic padlocked blindfold (and little else) as he is held prisoner in her immense Mediterranean Gothic palace on a sunny Sardinian island.

Beppe, who has a sense of humor, is soon yelling back at her. "At least we take money only from the rich," counters Beppe to Fulvia's philosophy of proud self-interest, which surely would have endeared her to the late Ayn Rand. Sex and politics, however, usually go hand in hand in a Wertmuller movie, and "Summer Night" is no exception when the handsome, bearded Beppe realizes that for all her fury, Fulvia is attracted to him.

It's terrific to see Wertmuller back in control. The director's energy has never flagged, not even in "Camorra," her recent and wretched anti-drug broadside, but here it's contained in a cleverly plotted, very adult romantic comedy. "Summer Night" boasts one of the lengthiest, steamiest love scenes in a non-porno movie, yet it's as amusing as it is sensual, for Wertmuller sees the humor as well as the grandeur in uninhibited passion. Sex for Wertmuller is the great equalizer between men and women, and equality is what's important to her.

Few contemporary films call for a star to wear a different gown in every scene, but as a comic fantasy "Summer Night" is the exception. It's fun to watch a fine actress at the height of her beauty have that chance. Melato is well served by designer Valentino, who has shown off her stunning figure and gorgeous, tawny complexion in a seemingly endless series of softly elegant gowns and casual outfits. (While Melato strides about in her best-dressed-list glamour, Placido lounges amusingly in chains, assuming the kitschy poses of Victorian paintings of Roman and Greek slaves.)

The chemistry between Melato and Placido is just as potent as it was between Melato and Giannini, and "Summer Night" (Times-rated: Mature) is shot in ravishing color and accompanied by the most seductive of scores. We can only hope that Wertmuller, having regained her momentum, keeps it--and that we won't have to wait another decade for the next installment in her battle-of-the-sexes trilogy.

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