Born in Rome in 1928, Lina Wertmüller enrolled at the Accademia Pietro Sharoff in 1951 to study stage directing. After gaining her diploma, she worked in the theatre with Garinei and Giovannini. She later worked as assistant director to Fellini on the iconic film, 8 ½ .
In the meantime, she worked in radio and directed television programs such as “Canzonissima”. She made her film directing debut with The Lizards (1963) but she became an international sensation with her phenomenally successful The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), Swept Away (1974) and Seven Beauties (1975). In the 1970’s Lina Wertmüller became the darling of the American movie-going public. While this idyll lasted, she was satirically christened by an Italian critic, “Santa Lina di New York”.
For me this is more than just the death of a public figure. I dedicated many years of my professional life to the study of her major films, especially those of the 1970’s, and had the privilege of publishing the first—and sadly the only, up to the present time—full-length monograph on her cinema.
In 2006, because I wanted to include it in my book, Man in Disorder, the Cinema of Lina WertmülIer in the 1970’s, I sought an interview with Lina and not only did she kindly agree to it, but then she devoted almost two full days to this project at her triplex apartment in Piazza del Popolo in Rome.
On the first day she exhaustively answered my many questions for the written interview and the subsequent DVD that my film crew and I created. And not surprisingly, Lina being Lina, ever-bouncy and charmingly bossy, she frequently took over and exuberantly directed our young and inexperienced camera girl on how to film it.
On the second day Lina and I went through her closets, where she kept a veritable archive of photo albums and mementos related to her films, and she graciously invited me to pick out any pictures or movie stills for inclusion in my forthcoming book. While going through the photos, and in the interview, I had ample proof that even at the age of 77, she had lost none of her legendary fire and brimstone. She had plenty of biting commentary on the state of the world, politicians, population explosion, immigration, birth control and young people who waste their lives playing with their technological gadgets. She felt strongly about everything. She was fearless!
Her career in America was meteoric; for the American public, she had come out of nowhere and taken America by storm. She was the first woman to ever receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, in 1976 for Seven Beauties, and the only woman of her era to be critically placed in the company of the greatest directors of all time, Fellini, Bertolucci and Visconti. Yet roughly five years after this artistic canonization in America, she was virtually forgotten in the U.S. And I could fairly add that while she was respected and beloved in Italy as a celebrity, her cinematic output was never fully appreciated. As I’ve speculated over the years in many academic articles that I have published, this was perhaps because, while she appeared to be a complete original to American audiences who were unfamiliar with the commedia all’italiana that formed the foundation of her artistic roots, Italian audiences were more than familiar with her predecessors such as Pietro Germi, Mario Monicelli and Luigi Comencini.
On the political front, we can say that whereas the American public and many critics thought the director to be politically committed and in the vanguard of the clamor for social reforms so typical of the 1970’s social and political climate, a few others, taking a cue from Italian critics such as Lucy Quacinella and Lino Micicchè, believed that Wertmüller, “adds nothing new to the genre other than the pretense of a leftist political analysis” and did much to hurt Wertmüller’s image as a forward-looking, leftist firebrand. Quacinella’s conclusion was that Lina Wertmüller, a shrewd and sophisticated director, manipulated the public’s passion for faddish social trends to appear to be politically committed.
The films of the commedia all’italiana were much more than entertainment, they helped to re-shape the customs and attitudes of a country that was, thanks to the “economic miracle” (roughly dated as between 1953 to 1965), in rapid evolution on all levels. Lina Wertmüller’s films fit neatly into the category, not only thematically, but stylistically as well.
The commedia all’italiana is considered by some scholars to be more tragicomedy than comedy bordering on the grotesque, a definition that aptly represents the Wertmüller signature style that was considered both baroque and grotesque. She was therefore an integral part of an established and popular cinematic tradition of her time.
Yet despite the many family resemblances to the commedia all’italiana, a Wertmüller film remains unmistakable. Film scholars like Peter Bondanella have commented that they are “richly wrought comic masterpieces” and suggest that she brings a woman’s perspective and strong female characters to a genre that generally lacked them.
However, everything related to Wertmüller is complex, and much controversy has revolved precisely around her treatment of women in her films. Whether having them abused and slapped around (as in Swept Away) or grotesquely distorting their bodies using a fish-eye lens (as in The Seduction of Mimi) given today’s intolerance of the politically incorrect, today scenes like these might have ended her career altogether before it even started.
Nor did she shy away from focusing on the Southern Italian stereotype. We see this stereotype repeatedly exploited—although some would say for the well-intentioned purpose of criticizing it– in the many characterizations brought to the screen by Giancarlo Giannini. In her love for making provocative politically incorrect statements and for training a shrewd eye on social trends, as I learned in my interview, the years did nothing to tame her.
Lina Wertmüller herself attributed the dramatic turnaround of her success in America to Hollywood’s unwillingness to grant her the necessary control over her films. Her own theory was that “America is like a teenager that becomes infatuated…America gets a crush on an artist and then right after, she couldn’t care less about him” (Bullaro). While suffering rejection in America and on the world stage, in Italy she continued to thrive and branch out in various media, loved by her public even if not placed on the pedestal that she had occupied in the 1970’s.
Nevertheless, in 1992 she once again achieved a moderate international success with Ciao Professore (Io speriamo che me la cavo). In Italy it was better known as the film version of the eponymous book written by Marcello D’Orta, a collection of letters written by the school children of Arzana, Naples .
The twenty years that had elapsed between this mini come-back and Wertmüller’s original success, both at home and abroad, could not be ignored. The 1970’s were radically different in every way from the 1990’s. Her own conclusion about her films is that hers is “… a perceptive eye, worried, amused, dismayed, even terrorized. If I had to define my own films I’d say it’s the work of a terrorized optimist” (Bullaro).
Yet in 2019 Lina Wertmüller’s gift for trenchant comedy and social commentary and her contribution to the Italian film industry was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that graced her with an honorary Oscar at the 11th Governor’s Award Ceremony for her lifetime achievements.
Lina Wertmüller was all these things, and every film created a controversy, yet she always remained herself, never gave in to the critics and certainly did not strike one as terrorized. Her exuberance and commitment defined her as an artist and person and at a time in history when political correctness tyrannizes over us, we will miss her.