(Originally published in The Guardian)
Outrageously subversive Italian film-maker who was the first woman to be nominated for a best director Academy Award
Five iconoclastic Italian films directed by Lina Wertmüller, who has died aged 93, were huge hits in the mid-1970s on the American art cinema circuit, where they broke box office records for foreign films. Using bold colours and alienating camera angles, and dealing with subjects such as political injustice, gender disparities, sexual violence and eroticism, her films, most of them starring Giancarlo Giannini as a moustachioed ineffectual lover, seemed to chime with the sense of rebellion in the air in the US at the time.
One of these films, Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975), led to her becoming the first woman to be nominated for a best director Academy Award. She was also nominated for her screenplay: Wertmüller wrote most of her own films.
Seven Beauties starred Giannini as a small-time crook and womanizer who lives in Naples with his mother and seven sisters, the beauties of the title. After killing a pimp while defending the honour of the eldest sister, he is put into an asylum, where he rapes an inmate, then joins the Italian army, deserts, is captured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp where he becomes involved with a sadistic female commandant. According to the New York Times, the film was “Miss Wertmüller’s King Kong, her Nashville, her 8 ½, her Navigator, her City Lights.”
Aside from their particular style and content, Wertmüller’s films had long, attention-grabbing titles in Italian, such as Film d’Amore e d’Anarchia, ovvero Stamattina alle 10 in Via dei Fiori nella Nota Casa di Tolleranza (Film of Love and Anarchy, or At Ten o’clock This Morning in Via dei Fiori in the Infamous House of Prostitution, released as Love and Anarchy, 1973). The English title of Travolti da un Insolito Destino nell’Azzurro Mare d’Agosto (1974) was, however, soon shortened from Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August to, simply, Swept Away (remade in 2002 by Guy Ritchie, starring his wife at the time, Madonna). The original title of her film Blood Feud (1978) holds the world record for being the longest in existence.
Perhaps Wertmüller’s taste for outrageously prolix titles came about because she had a lengthy title herself. Born Arcangela Felice Assunta in Rome, into a devoutly Roman Catholic Swiss family of aristocratic descent, she was the daughter of Maria Santamaria-Maurizio and Federico Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich, a lawyer.
A rebellious child, Lina was expelled from more than a dozen Catholic schools. She finally graduated from a drama school, after which she worked in the theatre, acting, directing and writing for 10 years, as well as touring Europe with a puppet company.
Wertmüller made a successful directorial debut with The Lizards (I Basilischi, 1963). The film, which somewhat resembled I Vitelloni by Federico Fellini, for whom she had been assistant on 8½ the year before, was set in a sleepy, impoverished southern Italian town where a group of young men spend their time ogling women and vegetating in the sun. Nothing much happens in the film, or to the aimless characters, but Wertmüller displayed a sharp eye, a keen sense of humour and a restrained neo-realist aesthetic not so present in her later work.
Some years passed before the promise of I Basilischi was fulfilled, followed as it was by several conventional genre movies: Questa Volta Parliamo di Uomini (Let’s Talk About Men, 1965), a four-part episode film starring Nino Manfredi; a fey musical, Rita la Zanzara (Rita the Mosquito, 1966), on which she was credited as George H Brown, and a spaghetti western, Il Mio Corpo per un Poker (The Belle Starr Story, 1968), under the pseudonym of Nathan Wich. Then came Metallurgico Ferito nell’Onore (1972), released in English-language countries as The Seduction of Mimi.
Giannini played Mimi, a simple labourer in southern Italy who finds himself caught between the local mafia on the one hand and the communist party on the other. He offends the mafia and has an affair with a liberated, anarchic girl (Mariangela Melato), thus driving his wife into the arms of another man and himself to some grotesquely ill-judged behaviour. Demonstrating the director’s penchant for a stew of sex and politics, the film is a bitter and humorous comment on Sicilian society.
In Love and Anarchy, Giannini played a simple farmer, committed to an anti-fascist group that dispatches him to assassinate Mussolini. He lodges in a brothel where he falls in love with one of the prostitutes (Lina Polito), and this, together with his vulnerability, impedes his mission and leads him to his own violent destruction. The film’s thesis – romanticism is not a realistic basis for political activism – is a telling one, and Wertmüller, despite a self-indulgent camera style, achieves an authentic evocation of the disturbed atmosphere of 1930s Italy.
Tutto a Posto e Niente in Ordine (All Screwed Up, 1974) follows a group of young people from the country who go to Milan and form a commune to enable them to survive the economic evils of the big city. Any social, political or satiric points are rather blunted by deliberate bad taste – for example, a ballet in an abattoir.
In Swept Away, a sexist, communist Sicilian deckhand is cast adrift on a dinghy with his rich boss’s liberated wife (Giannini and Melato again). After two nights, they reach an island on which they carry out a series of sado-masochistic sexual and class strategies. The desert island plot works as a determinist parable in which people’s sexual attitudes are governed by economics and class, though it fails to avoid gender stereotypes.
Because of Wertmüller’s extraordinary run of hits, and the Oscar attention for Seven Beauties, Warner Brothers offered her a four-picture deal to make movies in English. The studio regretted its decision when Wertmüller delivered The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain, generally abbreviated to A Night Full of Rain (1978). It starred Candice Bergen and Giannini as an ill-assorted couple, she an ardent feminist American photographer, he a macho communist Italian journalist, who spend their time arguing and reconciling at length.
After the film gathered bad reviews, Warners and Wertmüller agreed to part company, she explaining that in any case she wanted more creative freedom than the studio would allow. Lew Grade’s company mainly financed Blood Feud (1978), but despite starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and Giannini, the mafia thriller failed to generate much enthusiasm.
Wertmüller continued to make Sicilian-set gangster films with intriguingly long titles such as Un Complicato Intrigo di Donne, Vicoli e Delitti (A Complex Plot About Women, Alleys and Crimes, 1985) and Notte d’Estate con Profilo Greco, Occhi a Mandorla e Odore di Basilico (Summer Night, with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil, 1986). She then made In Una Notte di Chiaro di Luna (Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It’s Love, 1989), a well-meaning and, she said, “first non-ironic film”, about AIDS, shot in New York, with Peter O’Toole, Rutger Hauer and Faye Dunaway.
It seemed that she had lost some of her bite, even in an attempt to return to her earlier socio-political comedies with Metalmeccanico e Parrucchiera in un Turbine di Sesso e di Politica (The Blue Collar Worker and the Hairdresser in a Whirl of Sex and Politics, 1996). Her last feature was the barely released comedy Peperoni Ripieni e Pesci in Faccia (Too Much Romance … It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers, 2004), starring Loren as a grandmother in a dysfunctional family.
In 2019 the Barbican in London included Wertmüller in a season of neglected directors, lauding her for her “unflinching critique of fascist Italy, her embrace of ribald humour, and her dissections of entitled masculinity”. A 2015 documentary made by her assistant Valerio Ruiz, Behind the White Glasses – referencing her trademark spectacles – was screened alongside the films. In 2019, she received a lifetime achievement Academy Award.
Wertmüller’s husband, Enrico Job, the art director on many of her films, died in 2008. She is survived by their daughter, Maria Zulima.