Lina Wertmuller: Provocative Italian filmmaker

Lina Wertmuller: Provocative Italian filmmaker
Wertmuller wrote and directed some 30 movies over nearly five decades, challenging audiences with her incendiary tales of anarchy, fascism, crime and the battle between the sexes

Lina Wertmuller, an Italian filmmaker whose piquant blend of sex, politics, tragedy and humour made her work a staple of arthouse cinemas in the 1970s, when she became the first woman ever nominated for the Academy Award for best director with her genre-bending Second World War film Seven Beauties, has died at her home in Rome.

A onetime assistant to filmmaker Federico Fellini, Wertmuller wrote and directed some 30 movies over nearly five decades, challenging audiences in Italy and beyond with her incendiary tales of anarchy, fascism, crime and the battle between the sexes. She often turned the bedroom into an intimate stage for the Marxist class struggle, casting men in the role of capitalist masters and women in the part of subjugated workers, who were abused at times in scenes of brutal violence.

Critics were variously enchanted, baffled and disgusted by her films, and labelled Wertmuller a visionary feminist and a bigoted reactionary. Village Voice film critic Anthony Kaufman once described her 1974 movie Swept Away as “possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman”.

The movie starred Giancarlo Giannini as a communist deckhand who finds himself marooned on an island with a wealthy woman, played by Mariangela Melato, who had previously ordered him around. Turning the tables on their relationship, he humiliates and abuses her until she falls in love with him, only for their relationship to fall apart after they return to society.

“In its most simplistic terms, the plot is outrageous and an insult to feminists,” journalist Maureen Orth wrote in Newsweek. She added that “beneath the easy reading, Wertmuller is giving us food for thought about the kind of society that breeds messed-up characters like these and about the difficulty of escaping from self-made roles, even in paradise.”

The movie became a hit in Europe and the US and was remade in 2002 – with disastrous results – by director Guy Ritchie, who cast Madonna, his wife at the time, and Giannini’s son Adriano.

Wertmuller frequently collaborated with the elder Giannini, who often played earnest but foolish everymen caught up in political intrigue or romantic obsession. He starred in one of her funniest movies, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), as a metalworker who leaves his home in Sicily, after voting against the Mafia, and played an anarchist farmer who moves into a brothel, falls in love with a prostitute and plots to assassinate Mussolini in Love & Anarchy (1973). Both films competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Wertmuller awaits the start of her Hollywood walk of fame star ceremony in 2019

But she had her greatest critical success with Seven Beauties (1975), in which Giannini played Pasqualino Frafuso, a pompous, low-level criminal who shoots his sister’s pimp and is sent to a mental hospital before being conscripted into the army during the Second World War. He deserts, is captured by the Germans and winds up in a concentration camp, where he has sex with the Nazi commandant in a bid to escape death. The plot, Wertmuller said, was inspired by the life story of one of the extras in Mimi.

Reviewing the film for New York magazine, John Simon wrote that it propelled Wertmuller “into the highest regions of cinematic art”, adding, “How many comedies have ever made you cry? That is the ultimate greatness of Wertmuller and her film – that it transcends all conventional categories. It is neither comedy nor tragedy (its saddest parts are funny; its funniest, heartbreaking), and it makes nonsense of the very need for classification. Above all, perhaps, it is grotesque – like a gargoyle that is ugly, beautiful, frightening, and ludicrous.”

The movie received four Oscar nominations, including foreign film, actor and screenplay for Wertmuller, who lost to Paddy Chayefsky for Network. The directing prize went to John G Avildsen for Rocky. It would be nearly 20 years before a woman was nominated again, with Jane Campion receiving the honour for The Piano, and almost 15 years more before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win, for The Hurt Locker, in 2010. In April, Chloe Zhao became the second female winner, with Nomadland.

Wertmuller was honoured in 2019 with an honorary Academy Award for her career, at a ceremony that included tributes from Campion, who called her “a film warrior”, and Greta Gerwig, a fellow Oscar-nominated director who described Wertmuller’s films as part of the “the cinema of seduction”.

‘I love grotesque poetry,’ said Wertmuller, ‘and I think my films have that style’

Wearing her trademark white-framed glasses, the diminutive, 5ft-tall Wertmuller said she was delighted to accept the prize, although she had a suggestion for the historically male-dominated Academy. “She would like to change the name Oscar to a feminine name,” actress Isabella Rossellini said as she interpreted Wertmuller’s acceptance speech in English. “She would like to call it Anna, rather than Oscar.”

Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmuller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich was born in Rome on 14 August 1928, to a family descended from Swiss aristocrats. Her father was a lawyer, and Wertmuller said she spent much of her childhood reading comic books and going to the movies. She was expelled from about a dozen schools, by her count, before starting her career in the arts, studying the Stanislavski acting method at a theatre academy in Rome.

By the early 1950s, she was a puppeteer, a member of a celebrated troupe led by Maria Signorelli. She later worked as an actor, stage manager, set designer, publicist, screenwriter, playwright and theatre director. Through her friend Flora Carabella, the wife of actor Marcello Mastroianni, she also met Fellini, who made her one of his assistant directors on his 1963 film 8½.

He assigned her to find interesting “faces”, or people who could be extras, and introduced her to the fundamentals of filmmaking. “Tell the story as if you were in a bar telling it to friends,” she later recalled him saying. “And if you have a talent to tell stories, you will be able to tell them well. Don’t worry about the technical aspects.” With Fellini’s blessing, she borrowed some of the crew of and made her feature-film debut with The Basilisks (1963), about three young men in a poor Italian village.

Wertmuller on the set of ‘Pasqualino’ in August 1975, Naples

Wertmuller later ventured into English-language filmmaking with A Night Full of Rain (1978), starring Giannini as a communist journalist and Candice Bergen as his American romantic partner, a feminist photographer. But the movie received mixed reviews, and her reputation began to falter. “The bubble seemed to burst,” film critic Derek Malcolm later said. “After getting that rare Academy nomination, she could do nothing right.”

She continued working with top Italian actors on movies such as Blood Feud (1978), a thriller with Mastroianni, Giannini and Sophia Loren, although her films were increasingly hard to find in the US. Her later movies included Sotto… Sotto (1984), about a sexist man infuriated by his wife’s interest in her female best friend; Ciao, Professore! (1992), about a teacher sent to work in a village near Naples; and Too Much Romance… It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers (2004), her last feature film, which starred Loren and F Murray Abraham as a married couple in a faltering relationship.

Wertmuller worked frequently with her husband of four decades, production and costume designer Enrico Job, who died in 2008. They had a daughter, Maria Zulima Job. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Although Wertmuller delighted in ignoring conventions – she was fond of giving her films long titles, such as Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, which were usually shortened – she said she liked to stick to certain formulas, such as using a frenetic, eye-catching opening sequence to capture the audience’s attention. Her tone remained consistent as well, even as she veered from mob movies to twisted romantic comedies to wartime thrillers.

“I love grotesque poetry, and I think my films have that style, which combines humour and drama, irony and cynicism, comedy and tragedy,” she said in a 2017 interview with Current, the Criterion Collection’s online magazine. “It allows you to play with different narrative tones and rhythms. It’s more than a style – grotesque narrative reflects my own personality.”

“I think I have two souls,” she added. “One is playful, ironic, with a sense of humour. The other is in contact with the dramatic face of life and human problems around the world. The two natures live in me and never abandon me.”

Lina Wertmuller, film director and screenwriter, born 14 August 1928, died 9 December 2021

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