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A Director Who Had Fun: Lina Wertmüller (1928-2021)

Still from the 2016 documentary, "Behind the White Glasses"

Beloved. Dreaded. Derided. Worshipped. Hopefully never forgotten. Lina Wertmüller was a thorn in the side of the art house establishment, a riposte to the stateliness of modernism, a woman unafraid of men and their violence and dominance. She lived to confuse people, to make them uncomfortable, to do things her way. If you didn’t like it, that was on you. She found joy in horror and followed up atrocity with bad jokes. Life was a comically bleak pageant, and she was the ringleader, seated atop a circus elephant, draped in a kaftan in her trademark white glasses surrounded by Tiffany lamps, her great weakness. She made being the most feared director alive look easy.

Go looking for the truth about Lina Wertmüller and you’ll be assailed by myth and legend side by side with facts. She was kicked out of 15 Catholic schools. She used to send Lalla Kezich around the world in her place to do interviews and indeed she was seated where Wertmüller was meant to be during the Oscar broadcast where she lost the first directing Oscar for which any woman had ever been nominated. She was the only woman to direct a spaghetti western, except she got kicked off set, or was she brought on later? She’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the film with the longest title. Her fans include Henry Miller, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. She was the first director to turn Harvey Keitel into a sex symbol. (And who followed suit? The next woman to get nominated for best director). Who knows or cares if all of it’s true—it’s more exciting to believe the legend. “I didn’t want to go down in history as a socially conscious director,” she says in the 2016 documentary “Behind The White Glasses,” “I wanted to go down in history as a director who had fun.” Boy did she.

What is certain is that she was born ready to raise hell, in August of 1928. Her full name was Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich, which goes some of the way toward explaining her yen for grandiloquent titles for her unwieldy movies. She loved comic books as a kid, specifically Flash Gordon and the art drawn by Alex Raymond. She loved seeing his vision of wicked space queens, sexy and domineering. They would become fixtures in her cinema. She graduated from the Accademia Nazionale di Arte Drammatica Silvio D'Amico in 1951, having studied under revered theatrical persona Pietro Sharoff. He was the first of her important mentors. He got her into directing theatre and puppet shows, which she did for most of the 1950s. She learned from the two kinds of theatre people most often paid to see to embrace the darkness inside her but also to know how much people wanted to laugh. Misjudge the amounts in both and you’ll ruin the cake, so to speak.

Her schoolmate Flora Carabella introduced her to her husband, rising star Marcello Mastroianni, then working on his second collaboration with Federico Fellini, the great “8½.” Arrangements were made and Wertmüller became one of his many assistants. It was her job to get him interesting faces to place in the backgrounds of his crowded tableaux. This included her own mother in one instance, and a man Fellini spied from the back of a moving car, which meant young Lina had to spring from the cab and track the man down on foot, then in a cab. He instilled in her the confidence she needed to begin making her own art by telling her not to worry about how to direct because if she couldn’t simply tell the story like she would to her friends at a party, it wouldn't matter how she chose to direct. She repaid the favor by paying homage to his debut film “I Vitelloni,” about ne’er-do-wells in a coastal Italian town. 1963’s “The Basilisks” repackages Fellini’s romantic view of perpetual adolescence with razor wire. Fellini never ever gave into the idea that his characters needed exoneration in the eyes of the audience (indeed he was his favorite main character and killed and maimed himself a few times on screen), but Wertmüller’s worldview made his look cuddly.

“I can’t sleep, there are too many unanswered questions” begins the opening narration, introducing the wandering mind of its director to the world. “The Basilisks” is about young men in Southern Italy (her favorite location) trying to find a bedroom to keep warm in long enough to stay out of trouble. The place seems charming enough (half the town are introduced napping), what with the kindly former good time girl called Long Legs and the old men dozing in front of the abandoned communist youth center, but things are bad here. One of the men dreams of escaping to Rome, but he comes back to brag about his life so quickly he doesn’t get a foothold there. And then stays because in Rome no one cares that he’s been to Rome. The boys argue about everything, including a purported assault. Apparently, a peasant girl was raped by her landlord’s son, who now has to raise the kid. It’s suggested she enjoyed it, and that it was pretty convenient to get pregnant by the landlord’s kid, because now the landlord’s part of the family. They shrug. “Poverty is tough!”


This sounds dark (and it is, especially when you consider that at the time Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” was treated with scorn usually reserved for pornography when it debuted a few years prior) but this was the first crow of the cock. Lina Wertmüller had not even begun to spread her wings. Wary of being pigeonholed she contacted Nino Rota, Fellini’s pet composer, and the two of them adapted Wertmüller’s mother’s favorite children’s book Il Giornalino de Gian Burassaca as a limited TV series. Her friends suspected Wertmüller’s mother loved the books so much because Wertmüller herself was like the mischievous lead character, an Italian answer to the likes of Eloise or Harriet the Spy.

In the later part of the ‘60s she made a few tame sex comedies (and worked a few days on “The Belle Star Story,” starring Elsa Martinelli and recidivist porn star George Eastman) while she started collecting the personalities that would make up her closest circle for the rest of her days. She was taken with the work of a man named Enrico Job, a talented artist, a talented artist (perhaps she saw the same exuberance of those Flash Gordon panels she so loved as a child) and she not only changed his life by turning him into a production designer, she married him, bore him a daughter, and they stayed together until his death in 2008. She met designers and directors (she was great friends with Francesco Rosi) but most importantly she met two actors whom she was desperate to mold: Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. They had the eager open features of newborn puppies and the baroque ferociousness of drunken Rottweilers. They were intense, they were hungry, and they were ready for their director to make them stars.


“The Seduction of Mimi” was their first collaboration and it’s like a degenerate Jack London or Dostoyevsky novel. Giannini plays Mimi, a worker who keeps imagining he’s climbed the ladder of status only to look up and see more rungs ahead of him than there were when he began. He votes the wrong way in a local election and gets run out of town. He’s a perfect patsy, falling in and out with the mob and the women in his life. He neglects his wife for another woman, so she gets pregnant with someone’s else child, sending him into a rage that leads him to impregnate the wife of the man who cuckolded him. He’s an ardent communist but he’s the most selfish man in his friend group. In the end he winds up right where he started, only now with two family’s worth of mouths to feed. It’s a parade of grotesque social customs and masculine posturing deflated at every turn like a balloon. A star was born.

Melato, so good as Giannini’s mistress in “Mimi,” got an even more central role in their next collaboration, “Love and Anarchy,” or as it was called in Italy “Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza...' And that isn’t even the one that got her into the Guinness book. Giannini had read about Michele Schirru, the anarchist who’d come to Rome to kill Mussolini and thought it would make a great film for him and his director. Wertmüller dreamt up what might be her best film about a timid virginal plotter who arrives in Rome from the south to kill Mussolini. Of course, everything goes wrong. He falls in love, he arouses suspicion with the local fascists, he pisses off Melato at every turn, and every second he spends alone he loses his nerve. Giannini spent hours in make-up every day having freckles applied (one of many of Wertmüller’s theatrical make-up decisions she exacted during this part of her career) and he plays the would-be assassin as if he’s having his insides pulled apart like a sweater round a nail. The bawdy and colorful atmosphere of the brothel makes him look all the more like an alien hiding in plain sight. It’s the film of hers that most breaks my heart.

“All Screwed Up” followed in 1974, Wertmüller’s answer to Fellini’s “Roma.” It’s about the denizens of an apartment complex (played by unknowns, each possessing the kind of unique physiognomy she learned to cherish while scouting extras for Fellini) struggling to get through their day and it has more in common with her 60s work than the previous two features, except for the curdled core of sexual tension. The film is perhaps best remembered for an ingeniously uncomfortable scene where a woman fights off her boyfriend’s attempts to take her virginity. She’s struggling to get him off of her when they accidentally knock over the new television set. So she’s faced with a dilemma: her virtue or the TV. Italian critics saw the tidiest metaphor for modernism yet presented and Italy had no shortage of those. The winning streak continued.

If you ever wanted a succinct understanding of the stark difference in the way that the public used to view movies as an art form, there are two things I’d point to: One is that “Deep Throat,” a cheaply made chintzy porn film became such a huge box office success that Johnny Carson, the host of “The Tonight Show” could confess on air that he’d gone to see it without any blowback whatsoever. The other is that Lina Wertmüller became a celebrity in America after the one-two successes of “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties.” Laraine Newman used to do impressions of her on “Saturday Night Live.” She was everywhere for a few beautiful seconds. And she got to be such a public figure based on the successes of two of the bleakest movies about sex ever made.

“Swept Away (by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August)” once more pits Giannini against Melato. She’s a married aristocrat, he’s a lowly deck hand and a communist. They wind up trapped together on a desert island where suddenly she needs him. Their dynamic reverses and she becomes his willing sexual slave after a few weeks under the hot sun.

“Seven Beauties,” her answer to Fellini’s “Satyricon,” is even more deranged. Giannini plays a Southern mob hood who kills a guy by accident, pleads insanity, is pressed into military service, goes AWOL, gets captured, and ends up in a concentration camp from which he attempts to screw his way to freedom. It’s a two-hour pile-up of profanity and blasphemy and it’s pretty funny. She almost won best director at the Academy Awards but she lost to John G. Avildsen for “Rocky,” one of the more absurd things to ever happen at the Oscars. “Rocky” is a perfectly fine movie. “Seven Beauties” is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It’s perhaps useful to hammer home the great thematic fixations of Wertmüller’s career. The enormous titles hint at a fascination with a structuralist critique of modern political life and she was absolutely transfixed by side-by-side comparisons of dueling bodies. Her favorite male characters were chauvinist socialists. In 1978’s “Blood Feud,” Marcello Mastroianni’s communist interloper tries to explain away his philandering by saying that Karl Marx did it too. There is no one in her cinema whose political convictions stand up to the scrutiny of horniness. Men strut about like Mussolini, raining judgment down upon everyone, but then turn around and commit whatever sins they deem necessary. Every woman in her cinema gets knocked around a little by the heroes a little before anything romantic can happen. The staunch communist in “Swept Away” needs only a few minutes in charge of an aristocrat and he believes in a tyrannical social order. He becomes Mussolini. He forgets the real world long enough to be surprised by Melato’s actions in the end—so what kind of communist was he really?

She challenged the staidness of a curdled Italian proletariat class by constantly doing things in bad taste. Where had our principals got us? A broken century at the center of which stood a disgraced Italy failed by progressivism. As the hero says in “Seven Beauties,” the Nazis seem more organized than anybody. Famously odious New York Magazine critic John Simon once said that the two greatest female directors were Leni Riefenstahl and Lina Wertmüller, and she seemed to live to make him regret saying that by constantly making a fool of Riefenstahl’s pet cause. Why should she be afraid to consistently showcase the hypocrisy of men demanding control of everything when they’d so definitively ruined everything in living memory?

It’s here that things grow a little dimmer for Lina Wertmüller. She scored a deal with Warner Bros but “A Night Full of Rain” was predictably too arch for Americans. She would confess some measure of self-destruction at play. “You have to defend yourself from success,” she would later say by way of explaining her failure after her moment in the spotlight. “Night,” in which Giannini (finally looking breathtakingly handsome after six films looking like he’d fled a Picasso canvas) romances Candice Bergen until they divorce, is as maddeningly unresolved and elliptical as Bill Gunn’s long buried “Stop,” another career killer. To see Wertmüller, ordinarily so concrete, become abstract and evasive, must have been shocking.

The next year she returned with “Blood Feud” or (wait for it…) “Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino.” Guinness, as they say, screeched to a halt when they read that one. She got herself a couple of real stars in Sophia Loren and old friend Mastroianni (opposite Giannini in his eight outing for Wertmüller) but it was hardly smooth sailing. Loren resented being styled like a typical Wertmüller woman (flamboyantly smeared eye shadow, oversized peasant’s weeds) and they butted heads during the production. They would make eventually make up when they reunited for the touching TV movie “Francesca e Nunziata” together in 2001, where Wertmüller gifted her one of her last great parts, and then again for 2004’s “Peperoni ripieni e pesci in faccia.” “Blood Feud” was not the success of “Seven Beauties” or “Swept Away.” Nothing would be again. Wertmüller made five of the agreed upon best films of the 1970s, movies still bandied about on lists of the greatest and most shocking movies of all time. And she did it without compromising.

I’m reminded today of Giancarlo Giannini’s final lines in “A Night Full of Rain”: “I keep thinking all the poets have died. I feel time is out of joint. Things aren’t letting up. Everything should be clear. Instead everything is more confused.” Cavani’s final film seemed to admit that there was no direction left to stand really, especially because financiers were too scared to let her make any of her dozens of unproduced scripts. She made a documentary in 2014 about Gioachino Rossini, in which the composer briefly returns from the dead to narrate visits to the Italian cities where he lived and worked. And there in that carriage with the undead genius was Lina Wertmüller, the wicked queen from the comic books of her childhood, silently reliving every sordid scene from her life’s work along with him. Time is out of joint, the poets of the cinema are leaving us, things aren’t letting up, our movies get worse all the time, but I can’t be sad today. Lina Wertmüller is gone, but she had fun. 

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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