'The Law According to Lidia Poët'
This Netflix series, fresh in 2023, is not only gorgeous to look at but is important in its celebration of Italy's first woman attorney, Lidia Poët, styled here as a kind of 19th-century Sherlock Holmes of Turin. Women are so often written out of history, but Lidia Poët never gave up.
She graduated from the University of Turin and passed her bar exam, all set to take up law in the city in 1883 at the age of 28. However, in the male-dominated world of the courts (and society at the time), others did not agree that she should practise. After only a few months working with clients, she found that the attorney general had lodged a complaint with the Court of Appeal, which was upheld, though there was some publicity in Lidia's favour. She was disbarred.
Despite this, she joined her brother Enrico, also a Turin attorney, working in his office as his assistant – and a great deal more – virtually managing the office in his absences, until, in 1919, the law was changed, and she was able to be readmitted to the roll of lawyers. For all her life she was involved in the international women's movement. This much is true.
What the writers Guido Iuculano (also the producer) and Davide Orsini have done is to take the bare bones of Lidia's life and imagine her spirit, intelligence and ingenuity, turning her into a liberated woman – sexually and intellectually – with whom one can identify today, as women still continue to find that their voices and stories are lost into the ether.
As the author Richard Cohen writes, in his recent, enthralling book, Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past
: 'Male historians systematically snuffed out hundreds of women, their accomplishments, their bravery and even their notoriety'. All of that, including the notoriety, is to the fore in The Law According to Lidia Poët
. The writers didn't hold back; what they didn't know about Lidia they certainly had a wonderful time making up.
The writers are men, but one can't have everything. The back story they have created gives a very full picture of late 18th-century life in Italy, at a time when, politically, the stability of quite new Italian nationhood is never secure. This itself may well feed into the mores of the time.
The series is structured to have one crime per episode, which works very well, a traditional format, imaginatively treated. The first two set the scene for the circumstances as to why Lidia has had to return to the family home, lived in by her brother Enrico (a lovely characterisation by Eduardo Scarpetta – somewhat playing Watson – whose comprehension of his sister alters incrementally until he is in nearly full sympathy); his wife Teresa, a traditional at-home wife; their teenage, rebellious daughter Marianna; and Teresa's brother Jacopo, a journalist with leftist leanings. There is a mystery about why Lidia had left home, and why their deceased father continues to be a malevolent presence. It is very much to do with the attitudes of the day and age when women were no more than chattels, to be traded for profit, especially in marriage.
Certainly marriage is not on Lidia's mind, as the series opens with a revealing sex scene in which Lidia is very much in charge, and her sense of her physical self – her desires and her doubts – is a theme throughout. Her behaviour elicits the notoriety. When fully clothed, the physical presence of Lidia is also simply extraordinary.
Played by Matilda de Angelis, Lidia is dressed to kill, costumed by Stefano Ciammitti in the most sumptuous outfits, styled for the times, with velvet collars, embroidered jackets, sweeping coats and adorable hats. De Angelis has a face of 1,000 expressions: from steely to empathetic. She seeks the truth. Sometimes Lidia takes on the defence of women, often of little substance, who are, not surprisingly, being framed for crimes they did not commit, usually by men in power. She defends those whom others disbelieve. With daring and good detective work, she sees the unseen, and is not frightened to take chances.
Her brother, whom she persuades – or sets up so he cannot refuse – to help her, must be the one to officially present her cases, but it is Lidia who recognises the trickery of smoke and mirrors and understand the complexities. Why, in one episode for example, did the younger son feel he must take responsibility for the family's shame; or, which politician needed to use a prostitute as a cover up?
The cases are all intriguing, with visits to pitiful clients in dark jails, investigations of high society in palaces, confrontations of judges in offices of authority. Filmed in and around Turin, buildings and interiors are atmospheric. As for bravery, sometimes it requires Lidia to put herself in danger to create a confession through an entrapment, rescued just in time. But, really, she lives bravery.
Lidia is also brave in trying to be an independent woman, while at the same time supported by her brother (though her case-solving abilities make her more than an equal partner). She decides to learn to ride a bicycle in order to be free to travel. She drinks. She swears. She has once refused marriage – revealed as the story unfolds – and she takes lovers. There is also a spark between her and Jacopo, who is drawn to her inhibitions and honesty, not to mention her beauty and intelligence. The world of journalism and political intrigue play a part in the story.
Then there is the teenage Marianna (Sinéad Thornhill) and her frustration at the constraining social harness of the times, where marriage is her only future, but not if her aunt has anything to do with it. These are the threads that are woven, never tied up, that give the character of Lidia so much real personality. We see her writing in her journal at night: 'It is said that collective wisdom has always played a part in denying women the right to practise law. But has this same collective wisdom not for centuries been an accomplice to slavery? And what fate awaits a society which doesn't have the courage to admit its own mistakes'.
In Italy, the example of Lidia Poët brought publicity to the advancement of women's rights. There is still a long way to go, but as Richard Cohen puts it in his book: 'History has already been distorted by the minimisation and outright exclusion of women. However, in the past 50 years we have seen a near-total recasting of the way women are written about and how women can impart their view on the past'.
A word about the soundtrack. In a daring move, the soundtrack – perhaps indicating how the past can be overtaken by the present – begins with moderation and then turns it up to rock mode with FKA Trigs, Thom Yorke and RIIVAL blasting out. Credit to Massimiliano Mechelli for making it work and giving the series an additional shot of the modern.