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Plot: an uncharted island, where nothing is forbidden.

In a 2000 exchange for the documentary "A Hard Look" Indonesian-Dutch softcore sex and Eurocult queen Laura Gemser once, quite offhandedly, remarked to British film director, journalist, and actor Alex Cox that, “any excuse is good to get naked.” She was, of course, referring to her tenure as Black Emanuelle that commenced with Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (1975). Not that Gemser was an exhibitionist but as a model she had done her share of nude pictorials for various men’s magazines in Belgium and the Netherlands, and la Gemser agreed on a whim. Partly because fashion photographer Francis Giacobetti asked her to and because it meant a free vacation to Kenya. The paycheck probably didn’t hurt either. While Albertini’s original helped in launching her star, it would be late consummate exploitation grandmaster, part-time smut peddler, and full-time pornographer Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato) who launched Gemser to cult cinema immortality when he took control of the Black Emanuelle franchise and found box office success with it. Gemser met her husband Gabriele Tinti on the set of Black Emanuelle (1975) and retired from acting after Tinti’s death in late 1991. Zeudi Araya and Me Me Lai were only minor celebrities compared to miss Gemser, who has been enshrined as the definite queen of Italo exploitation.

While history has mostly remembered her for her association and voluminous oeuvre with D’Amato, Gemser didn’t work with him exclusively. With an impressive three decades and covering a variety of genres (usually softcore erotica or horror, or some permutation thereof) Gemser would work with supreme hacks Bruno Mattei, and Mario Bianchi just as often. Everybody has a few skeletons hidden in their closet, and Laura Gemser is no different in that regard. In between (official and illicit) sequels to Black Emanuelle (1975) and Emmanuelle: L’Antivierge (1975), the first sequel to Just Jaeckin/Emmanuelle Arsan’s scandalous Emmanuelle (1974) (with Sylvia Kristel) Gemser appeared in A Beach Called Desire (released domestically as La spiaggia del desiderio), a little known (or remembered) Venezuelan-Italian co-production directed by the duo Enzo D’Ambrosio and Humberto Morales. A Beach Called Desire was one of six movies Gemser shot in 1976, three of which tried to pass itself off as a Black Emanuelle sequel. The most significant of those being Eva Nera (1976) which sort of laid the groundwork for D’Amato’s official sequels Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976), Emanuelle in America (1977), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977). No wonder then that this little ditty has fallen into obscurity. “an uncharted island, where nothing is forbidden!” screams the poster. Not even a naked Laura Gemser can salvage this exercise in tedium. A Beach Called Desire effortlessly manages to fail both as a jungle adventure and as a soft sex yarn.

Shipwrecked junkie Daniel (Paolo Giusti), fleeing Caracas in a panic when a female friend of his OD’ed, washes ashore on an uncharted island somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, having been knocked unconsciousness trying to escape collision with an oncoming yacht. After exploring the shores, and trying to establish provisional help signals, one day he finds his palm tree branch SOS sign erased. Deducting that there are, no, must be other people on the island, Daniel naturally starts to investigate his immediate surroundings. His unexpected arrival throws off the balance of a fragile family unit consisting of patriarch Antonio (Arthur Kennedy); a man with a shady, possibly criminal past, and his two twenty-something children Haydee (Laura Gemser) and Juan (Nicola Paguone). Haydee, having never seen another male besides her father and brother, takes an immediate liking to Daniel. Soon Daniel learns that his presence raises the tension between all three males orbiting Haydee, as father and son maintain an openly incestuous relationship, or “game” as Juan chooses to call it, with her. Not helping matters is that Antonio fears that the presence of the shipwrecked interloper might alert authorities to his whereabouts. Wrought by paranoia and consumed by fear Antonio is inspired to an act of desperation, one that will have fatal consequences. Daniel, in all his infinite benevolence and wisdom, departs the island in the aftermath without taking Haydee with him concluding that "day by day, her smile will fade."

Arthur Kennedy was one America's most beloved character actors of the late 1940s through early 1960s, and he clearly was a long way from Barabbas (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Obviously he was collecting any easy paycheck and following the box office success of Star Wars (1978) he could be seen slumming it up in The Humanoid (1979). A Beach Called Desire was probably the career highlight of Paolo Giusti, whose sole noteworthy other credit is Mariano Laurenti's Nurse at the Military Madhouse (1979) (with Nadia Cassini). Nicola Paguone, understandably, never acted ever again. Francesco Degli Espinosa was a second unit director, production manager, and editor. He occasionally moonlighted as a writer but that A Beach Called Desire was the last of just three credits says enough. Augusto Finocchi wrote a lot of spaghetti westerns and was clearly out of his element here. Even frequent Alfonso Brescia collaborator Marcello Giombini seems to be phoning it in with an even more one-note synthesizer score than usual. The only real big name here is director of photography Riccardo Pallottini. Pallottini had lensed, among many others, Castle Of Blood (1964), The Long Hair Of Death (1965), Lady Frankenstein (1971), Man From Deep River (1972), and The Killer Must Kill Again (1975). He’s able to line up a few artsy shots of Gemser frolicking on the beach, but it’s not as if a production like this inspires poetry very much.

Those looking for a 90-minute excuse to watch Laura Gemser prancing around in what little she happens to be almost wearing have plenty of better options. Her early filmography with Joe D’Amato, for one, is a good place to start. As is Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (1975) or D’Amato’s Eva Nera (1976), which has the additional bonus of somewhat inspiring the official Black Emanuelle sequels. A Beach Called Desire is a lot of things, but it’s an obscurity for a very good reason. For starters, it’s not very good (something which not even a naked Laura Gemser in her prime was able to remedy) and Gemser did plenty more, and plenty more interesting, things afterwards. Gemser was put to far better use in the Luciana Ottaviani romps Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) (keeping her clothes on both times, no less). That the woman who rose to fame due her sheer willingness to shed fabric would later find work as a costume designer must be one of life’s great ironies. To dispense with the obvious, A Beach Called Desire is ignored for a reason - you should probably too…

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.