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Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an improvement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.

Plot: two liberated adolescent girls escape their boring small-town lives.

That To Be Twenty wasn’t going to be the average commedia sexy all’Italiana is more than obvious when it opens with “I was twenty, I won't let anyone say those are the best years of your life”, a quote from French philosopher Paul Nizan, a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. Earlier in the decade director Fernando Di Leo had experienced trouble with authorities and government for this his Milieu Trilogy consisting of Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1971), and The Boss (1973). Di Leo had already poked fun at the inherent absurdities of the giallo with The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971) and now he was looking to channel his subversive inclinations elsewhere. What better way to indulge in some devastating socio-political criticism than to dress it up as a light and fun commedia sexy all’Italiana? Who better to deliver said pointed message than the genre’s two prime Lolitas as well as veterans Vittorio Caprioli and Ray Lovelock? To Be Twenty is the summit of 1970s Italian comedy. The less you know about its most celebrated punch the better. For that reason we encourage anybody seriously interested in experiencing To Be Twenty with virgin eyes to seek out the original uncut Italian print – and to avoid the international English-language cut at any cost.

From 1964 to 1985 Di Leo directed 20 movies and wrote 43 screenplays. As many a director Fernando Di Leo got his start as a screenwriter and one of his most famous screenplays was that for the spaghetti western A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) from Sergio Leone. For the sequel For A Few Dollars More (1965) Leone promoted Di Leo to assistant director. Like so many he filmed in whatever genre was popular and profitable that decade. As such Di Leo directed spaghetti westerns, film noir, poliziotteschi, and crime/action movies. In retrospect it’s only just that Di Leo is mostly remembered for his masterpiece, the one that pulled the rug from under the otherwise futile commedia sexy all’Italiana genre so fabulously by having the exposed bodies of Guida and Carati act as vessels for biting socio-political criticism.

Better even, Di Leo likes to play with audience expectations and in To Be Twenty he used a decidedly funny running gag to deliver the movie’s most celebrated and most widely misuderstood punch. Said punch was so controversial that worried distributors quickly pulled it from theatres, and with scissors in hand butchered one of Italy’s greatest and most subversive sex comedies. In what only can be considered one of the most puzzling re-edits in Italian and international cinema history, they completely missed the point Di Leo was making. Fernando Di Leo had planned a prequel set in 1940s Italy with Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati both reprising their roles, but the out-of-nowhere surprise ending didn’t sit well with audiences and distributors alike. Thus the intended prequel never materialized. Di Leo passed away of natural causes at the age of 71 in December 2003.

Lia (Gloria Guida) and Tina (Lilli Carati) are two emancipated adolescents hitchhiking their way from the provinces to the more cosmopolitan Rome. Describing themselves as, “young, hot and pissed off” the two concubines are in search of a place that will allow them to live out their lives in complete freedom, sexual and otherwise. The two feel restricted in their traditional rural environment and seek to try their luck in the more liberated Rome. En route to the big city the two hike across town but they seem to have little luck hitching a ride until Tina throws a few seductive glances across the road. A car finally pulls up and the girls’ spirits are lifted at long last. That is until the driver (Serena Bennato) make a pass on Tina and she angrily storms off as Lia looks on. The girls decide to take their chances and wait it out. Thankfully a friendly trucker takes them in and drives them to town, a place where he was going anyway. Before getting into the truck they encounter Nazariota (Vittorio Caprioli), proprietor of a hippie commune in the city where everybody is free to do whatever they please. Their acquaintances made Lia and Tina hop into the truck and are on their way to Rome.

What are two searingly beautiful adolescent girls to do in the big city? The two play in and drink from public fountains, steal cigarettes, enter a local café and flirt their way out of having to pay for anything. They break into impromptu suggestive dance routines on the Piazza di Spagna much to the amusement of a street musician and they shoplift from a convenient store because what else do we expect two beautiful girls with no discernable life skills to do? Looks are everything. After their assorted misadventures in town the girls happen upon the commune from Nazariota. Tina is immediately smitten by strapping free-spirited layabout Rico (Ray Lovelock) while Lia is happy to enjoy the quiet that the commune offers. They are given a living quarters with Arguinas (Leopoldo Mastelloni), a seemingly mute mime, but in actuality a practitioner of transcendental meditation. To occupy their time and to support themselves at the commune the duo sell encyclopedias to dusty professors. Lia and Tina engage in lesbian histrionics to tempt Arguinas, attend a reading of Valerie Solanas's 1965 radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and eventually realize the commune is a front for prostitution and drug running. A lesbian (Licinia Lentini) tries to seduce Lia. Not much later commune member Riccetto (Vincenzo Crocitti) is revealed to be an informant and hard-nosed police inspector Zambo (Giorgio Bracardi) grills the inhabitants. At this point Tina and Lia flee the commune because it’s not nearly as free as was promised. The two then enter a trattoria where they meet a man (Carmelo Reale, as Roberto Reale) and his gang. One last flirt couldn’t possibly hurt, right? What harm would anybody possibly inflict on two searingly beautiful adolescent girls?

The stars of To Be Twenty are the two prime Lolitas of lowbrow commedia sexy all’Italiana: Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati. Gloria Guida was Miss Teen Italy 1974 and the star of Mario Imperoli’s Monika (1974) and Blue Jeans (1975) that made her shapely derrière a legend in its own right. As a nod to her most famous movie Guida wears a similar pair of lowcut denim. Gloria was everybody’s favorite clothing-averse schoolgirl in a trio of La Liceale (1975) movies in the mid-to-late seventies. Whether she was a naughty schoolgirl, a novice at the convent, or a young nurse – at some point Gloria always ended up losing her top and frequently more articles of clothing. Where Gloria Guida was, very naked shenanigans usually followed. Guida might not have been a Laura Antonelli but she dominated the niche that she inhabited. It’s easy to forget that glorious Gloria shared the screen with Corrado Pani, Nino Castelnuovo, Lando Buzzanca, Marco Guglielmi, Mario Carotenuto, Ennio Colaianni, and Giuseppe Pambieri. Guida married crooner and showman Johnny Dorelli in 1981 and the two have been together since. Gloria maintained a short-lived singing career next to her acting as can be heard in the title song of To Be Twenty as well as Night Nurse (1979). La Guida remains a beloved monument of Italian culture, cinema and otherwise, even to this day.

Fate wasn’t so kind to poor Lilli Carati. Carati was also a former pageant and even was crowned Miss Elegance at a beauty contest in Calabria next to being the first runner-up at Miss Italy 1975. Lovely Lilli was a star of lowbrow comedies in her own right, but her star never shone as bright nor as fierce as Guida’s. Carati appeared on the covers of Playboy (December, 1976 and September, 1978), Playmen (October, 1976) and Penthouse (December, 1982). In 1984 Lilli made her acquaintance with director Joe D’Amato through mutual friend Jenny Tamburi and before long Carati appeared in four of D’Amato’s erotic movies. Things turned to worse for lovely Lilli as by 1987 she had descended into hardcore pornography and worked with performer Rocco Siffredi on a number of occasions. In the 1980s Carati would lose herself in addiction to alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. After two suicide attempts and an arrest for possession Lilli underwent therapy for three years in the Saman community of anti-authoritarian sociologist, journalist, political activist, and sometime guru Mauro Rostagno – famously murdered by the Costa Nostra - where she was the subject of the documentary Lilli, una vita da eroina (or Lilli, A Life of Heroin) by Rony Daopoulos. In 2014, at age 58, disgraced and forgotten, she passed away from a brain tumour.

To say that To Be Twenty is brazenly irreverent and subtextually rich would be an understatement if there ever was one. What Top Sensation (1969) from Ottavio Alessi was to the giallo, To Be Twenty was to the a light-hearted commedia sexy all’Italiana. 1970s Italy was a target-rich environment and Di Leo aims at everything from Italian machismo culture, provincial attitudes towards sexuality, gender roles, and youth counterculture to police corruption, the class divide, and the futility of the hippie Love Generation. It mocks self-important males in roles of authority (store detectives, police inspectors), the generation gap and the bourgeoisie. It has a biting contempt for everything and everyone, and anything is a potential target for critique. In the feature’s biggest running joke Lia and Tina throw themselves at each and every man (and who in their right mind would rebuke Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati in 1978?) they encounter yet are rejected again and again. Glorious Gloria had done her fair part of melodrama at this point – but she never, either before or after, was given a script this impressive. Forget the flights of fancy from The Minor (1974), forget the wicked mischief of That Malicious Age (1975) or the tragedy of Sins Of Youth (1975). This might start out like a variation on either Blue Jeans (1975) or La Liceale (1975) – but this is something else. This one is seething with disdain and overflowing with contempt – and any and everybody is fair game.

Nobody’s going to contest that Gloria Guida’s tour of duty through Italian comedy yielded any bona fide classics, one or two exceptions notwithstanding. Both Guida and Carati excelled in playing sexually promiscuous airheaded bimbos, and they did so with great relish and gusto. By 1978 every possible permutation and sexual kink of the commedia sexy all’Italiana had been thoroughly exhausted. To drag the genre kicking and screaming into the next decade somebody had to upset the status-quo and defy expectations in a major way. Fernando Di Leo heeded that call. Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati both were the Lolitas of the lower end of the spectrum and To Be Twenty follows all of the usual conventions wonderfully to create a false sense of security. Everything looks like pretty standard fare you’d expect from these belles except that Di Leo’s screenplay is far darker and more cynical around every turn. Vittorio Caprioli and Licinia Lentini play the kind of characters expected of them. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek and the jokes come flying early and often. It’s not until the very end until To Be Twenty reveals its true motives and lasting power. It’s unfortunate that neither Guida nor the late Carati ever had the chance to partake in another sardonic and deconstructionist genre exercise like this again. Di Leo knew their strengths and played up to them. To make a long story short, To Be Twenty is among the best 70s commedia sexy all’Italiana has to offer. The only caveat is that this is only true for the original uncut Italian print – and not the international English-language version chopped together by panicky distributors.