Lost and Found: The Misunderstood Career of Lina Wertmuller, the First Female "Best Director" Oscar Nominee

New York, circa 1976.

The country’s top critics debate in the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times the merits of one of the hot new auteurs, a Fellini protege, a woman whose films are garnering enormous praise in some corners and vitriolic criticism in others. To Pauline Kael, Lina Wertmüller is a misogynist and a misanthrope who revels in the disgusting. To John Simon, she is a true artist and humanist. Pitched battles are waged in print about her new movie, Seven Beauties, a harsh, painful and grotesque film for which she receives the first Best Director Oscar nomination given to a woman. This period—the zenith in Ms. Wertmüller’s career to date—is the culmination of several years of critic-spawned attention she has enjoyed with her previous mischievous work from The Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy, to Swept Away—the story of a put-upon servant from the south of Italy (Wertmüller regular Giancarlo Giannini) turning the tables on a bossy, ditzy northern socialite (Mariangela Melato) when the two become trapped together on a desert island. The film, in which the audience is encouraged to side with Giannini’s character when his superior survival skills allow him to bully Milato’s character into total submission, is perceived by some to be one of the most sexist, misogynistic movies ever made, and the fact that the filmmaker is one of the only prominent women directing films is seen as an extra slap in the face of feminism.

The notorious filmmaker grants interviews to a hungry press and further confounds critics with some of her views which seem to be contradictory or at odds with her work. One of her major supporters, Vince Canby, makes the audacious observation that Wertmüller couldn’t possibly understand her own films. “She successfully sabotaged her supporters and confirmed the opinions of the worst of her detractors, giving an interpretation of her movies that had little or nothing to do with what we thought we’d seen,” writes Canby following her press tour for A Nightful of Rain. Another interviewer likens the process of trying to get a consistently clear political POV from the filmmaker to “trying to drill a hole in quicksand.” As this debate goes on, she seems poised to take her place alongside Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel and the other art-house royalty whose work has generated reams of critical writing.

Hollywood, 1994. There are few art houses left. Speed is dubbed “Film of the Year” by The New Yorker and the title of Celebrity European Auteur has been left virtually vacant, due in part to an impoverished European film industry.

Lina Wertmüller, now a very energetic 65, still donning her signature white-framed glasses, still full of opinions on every subject, expresses mild perplexity at the perception in America that she is no longer working – an attitude stated most succinctly by Variety in a recent write-up of her in their “Missing Persons” column. “I must say, I’m doing quite a lot,” she protests. “I’m writing films and plays, I’m directing films. I’m sorry it doesn’t all succeed. ..The diminutive (an even five feet) director insists she has not “gone” anywhere, pointing out that her last film, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, was a big success at the Chicago Film Festival. “It was certainly the best performance of Sophia Loren’s career,” she asserts. Unfortunately, the notoriety did not help the film secure a U.S. distributor.

Wertmüller generously credits the dogged efforts of Cinema V for much of her ’70s success. The distributor, whom Francis Coppola introduced to Wertmüller, was responsible for the big push that her most popular films received in the U.S. “If I hadn’t hooked up with them, you might never have seen any of my films,” she says, speculating that Miramax, the distributor of her latest film, Ciao, Professore!, may be able to generate attention for her films in this country again. “Miramax seems to be a very vigorous young company with an eye out for European product,” she says with hope toward the future.

Ciao, Professore! (based on a book by a schoolteacher and his students’ essays) is a kinder, gender film than those she created two decades ago. It is an almost-sweet, Truffaut-like story of a third grade teacher (played by Paolo Villagio) who winds up, thanks to a clerical error, stationed in a tough school away from the affluent, well-behaved northern children he is used to. He must confront the poverty and corruption of uneducated children, their parents, and a society that doesn’t care, and that couldn’t afford to do anything if it did. The students and the professore learn from each other- although most of what he learns from them is how to curse colorfully and how to steal a car when an ambulance refuses to come to the neighborhood.

Paolo Villagio in Ciao, Professore! (1992)

Wertmüller will not admit that the film is as optimistic a departure as it seems, despite the exuberant children who populate it and the upbeat Louis Armstrong song (What a Wonderful World) which underscores it. The filmmaker, who characterizes herself as a “terrified optimist,” will not credit her professore’s efforts as being a symbol of hope she has for future generations. “If things were organized differently, these young people could grow up as productive, intelligent men and women, as good workers, and have a different relationship with society than the one they do have. We’re always afraid that the sickness of society will prevent this from ever happening. There are thousands of seductions in our society: advertising, the streets—everything tempts us with having. Motorcycles, shoes, cars, refrigerators. People behave as if having means being, and that’s not true. But this kind of sickness continues, so of course people become drug couriers, and of course people become criminals.”

Wertmüller, herself of Swiss origin (although she grew up in Rome), has in several films portrayed those from the south of Italy more affectionately than those from the north. She believes that those from the south “have a sense of irony and joy built right into their DNA.” As in Ciao, the northerner is somewhat seduced by the southern joi de vivre, even if he does, in the process, become a car thief. But she wants the film’s scope to far exceed this north vs. south issue and insists the same story could take place in Washington or New York or Philadelphia. “The sickness is in all of us, not only Italians.”

Regarding the future of film production in Europe and especially in her own country (where the industry is now headed by Ciao’s executive producer, Silvio Berlosconi), she is a terrified optimist to say the least. “There are 50 films a day on TV in Rome. We have been preyed upon by a lack of laws defending us. It costs a lot less to import a film from America than to finance the production of a new film. No one wants to see a protectionist law,” she says, “(because) of course I want to see all the American films. But I want to see French, Spanish and German films, too.

“Fellini never managed to make his films toward the end of his life,” she adds. “The state wastes so much money on so many idiocies; it’s terrible that they wouldn’t finance his films. Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini all had problems like this. It’s unpardonable. It’s very important that European production thrives, for the richness of both American and European cultures.”

For her part, Ms. Wertmüller is a woman of many contradictions. She despises authority, yet she takes pride in the fact that in her previous films she had “absolute control over every aspect.” She believes in non-violence, as does her professore, who becomes filled with self reproach when he loses his temper and strikes the unruliest of his students. But it is as a result of the teacher’s intimidation that some of the kids stray from their criminal destinies. “Yes, it is a contradiction. Violence in any form is always a terrible thing, but it is through violence that the professore can change things.” She says this without betraying any sense that she feels this contradiction can or should be unravelled any further.

As she discusses her films, it becomes apparent why interviewers have been surprised or frustrated by her take on her own work. In her most popular and acclaimed film to date, Seven Beauties (loosely based on the life story of an extra she met on a previous film), Pasqualino (Giannini) recounts the horrible humiliation he suffered during his internment at a Nazi death camp. In a parallel flashback, he also recounts the story of his life in the small hometown where his constant struggle to maintain his pride ultimately leads him to murder his sister’s pimp. Pasqualino is a charmingly tenacious anti-hero who persists at all costs, first to hold onto his idea of respect, and later to live another day.

The female commandant (an enormous Shirley Stoler), in a scene of unforgettable grotesqueness, accepts his pathetic seduction and “allows” him to have sex with her in return for a plate of food. Even more horrible, she makes him responsible for selecting people to send to the ovens. She declares in disgust that this “little Italian worm” will persevere in the end because he will do absolutely anything, even pretend to be turned on by her, to survive. In the midst of the death camp horror, an anarchist prisoner (Fernando Key) explains to him that overpopulation is the root of all the world’s problems. Shortly before he commits suicide by diving into a trough of excrement, he explains to a rapt Pasqualino that the world is too crowded and soon people will be killing one another in the streets for an apple.

Shirley Stoler in Seven Beauties (1975)

When Pasqualino returns home, all the women in his family have become whores. His hopes for pride and respect are lost to him forever, but he has lived. At least he has lived. He embraces his sweetheart and vows that the two will have fifteen children to make sure nobody will ever steal their apple.

While the film might seem to be saluting its hero’s vitality despite his weakness and confusion, Ms. Wertmüller is quick to disabuse a fan of that concept. Pasqualino, she says, would be better off dead. “What he had in the end was not life; that is death.” In fact, she characterizes the overall theme of Seven Beauties as `vitality equals death.’ “Vitality is usually a symbol of life,” she explains. “But overpopulation generates death. When Jesus Christ said ‘Go and multiply until you become like grains of sand in the desert,’ I’ve always suspected this is a symbol of death, not of life. He didn’t say ‘like the leaves on the trees,’ he said ‘like grains of sand in the desert.’ It’s always been misinterpreted, that phrase. The excess of vitality means death in that film. For me the anarchist who kills himself in the shit is more alive than Pasqualino, who has survived at the cost of his humanity and who wants to have so many kids in order to survive and become a symbol of destruction later on.”

Pasqualino’s last line, “I am alive,” is purely ironic to Wertmüller, and she will have no part of any theory that puts a more optimistic face on the concepts in the film. “Pasqualino is not alive at all, he’s dead. As a man, as a human being, he’s dead.”

Ms. Wertmüller has far more respect for suicidal anarchists than for poor Pasqualino. In Love and Anarchy, Tunin (also Giannini), a self-proclaimed anarchist, pathetically falls into a scheme way over his head the moment he sets his mind on an ill-conceived, ill-fated plot to kill Mussolini. In the end, he feels he has maintained his manhood, though he winds up brutally executed. Of this character Wertmüller beams, “Ah, Tunin, I will always have a very warm place in my heart for him.”

In an interview published before principal photography on Seven Beauties began, Wertmüller promised that the film would raise the question, “Is life worth living?” While she won’t spell out the answer now, and probably never has, her attitude would seem to indicate that her answer to that question is a qualified maybe.

Is Lina Wertmüller as dark and serious as her ideas make her sound? She is incredibly animated. The words coming out of her mouth (pre-translation) feel so full of excitement and energy, yet, the content of what she says is unabashedly nihilistic. One hopes that perhaps she is not being as serious as her ideas sound. The title, after all, of one of her recent films, (which she says is one of her most political), is The Joke. It’s a stretch, but maybe she’s only joking. “I’ve never been very serious,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in very serious issues, but I’ve had a tendency to take them with a great irony.” She has said that she is mistrustful of and frightened by people who take themselves too seriously.

“The charming thing about human beings is when you are able to laugh at yourself, about your own weakness and fear,” she says. “I remember Fellini hung a sign on his camera (during production of 8 1/2) which read: `Remember, this is a comic film.’ But of course it was very dramatic.”

Wertmüller has overcome hurdles in the past to make her films, so don’t expect financial problems in Italy’s film industry, her recent difficulties with distributors or the perception that she is a “missing person” to discourage her in the future. While she has been called a pioneer in a profession dominated almost exclusively by males, she downplays her initial obstacles. “I didn’t have all that many problems starting out as a woman who wanted to direct. Of course I had some, but my passion overcame them and that created a certain sympathy for me and interest in me. I was full of vitality. I was extroverted and very passionate and people took notice.”

Expect her to continue making films her own way regardless of whether or not critics and audiences take up her cause or take issue with it, and regardless of where her financing comes from. In the late ’70s, a much-touted multi-picture deal with Warner Brothers fell through when she dashed with the studio’s brass. “They wanted to make one picture, and that was not the picture I wanted to make,” she says.

She is a big believer in rehearsals, considered a luxury on many American shoots. “An actor needs to be sure of what he’s doing. There’s nothing that costs you more on a set than doubts. You have to make your choices beforehand. Often it is difficult to get top American stars to rehearse. Some actors are overpaid and have terrible habits. You should rehearse as long as you can before you shoot a film, 40 days before or more, if possible.”

Work methods aside, she is well aware that her views on filmmaking are not in step with those at the majors. “I think there was an analysis by people in Hollywood targeting only the young audiences,” she says with some disappointment. “The big effects and violence has been rewarded by young audiences and, of course, financiers know this. But this thinking is very dangerous. It winds up spoiling kids, who are the future audience. When they get used to hearing music at too-high decibels it’s dangerous and that’s what all this violence and special effects is like.

“I understand that those who run the industry think they have to spend $100 million a single film, and it’s full of accountants studying box office receipts and target audiences and they have to bring in a lot of money,” she says. But she stresses the importance of strong stories with something to say about the world: “The stories I tell are stories that many people can hear. Usually they have a lot of levels. They have a simple level that everyone can appreciate and they have levels that are deeper. There’s no other law for me about what film I should make other than I have to like it.” MM

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