Lina Wertmüller: Ahead of Her Time

Whether you’re referring to her name, her look or her style of filmmaking, Lina Wertmüller stands out in a crowd. Born in Rome in 1926 to a family of Swiss aristocrats, Wertmüller was a rebel at heart. She ignored her father’s pleas to study law and instead enrolled in film school. That choice would eventually land her at the Academy Awards as the first woman director nominated for an Oscar.

 

After graduating from school, Wertmüller played a variety of roles in the movie business. From acting to writing plays to directing, she worked with a number of influential artists during those years including Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni and her future muse, Giancarlo Giannini. In 1962, she landed a career-changing job as an assistant director on Fellini’s and the following year, made her directorial debut with I basilischi (The Lizards). The film was shot along the border of the southern Italian regions of Basilicata and Puglia, and to this day, is very much revered by the people of the south. The film speaks to the profound poverty of post-war Italy. With her trademark “whistling” music and simple yet powerful scenes, I basilischi was Wertmüller’s first in many social statements about the perils of man, the overpopulation and the politics that wreak havoc on the world and contribute to the suffering of the poor. 


Her great successes came the following decade when she teamed up with actor Giancarlo Giannini to churn out four consecutive spectacular and complex films, all of which received international acclaim: The Seduction of Mimi in 1972, Love and Anarchy in 1973, Swept Away in 1974 and Seven Beauties in 1975. In each of these films, Giancarlo Giannini plays a despicable character but bitter for good reason. There are numerous opposing forces in her films. For example, North versus South, socialism versus fascism and humility opposed to indifference. The opposition in her films is harsh. Her characters and their situations are black and white, and fiercely politically incorrect. There is no indecision or polite banter.


Perhaps the most revered of the Wertmüller/Giannini films is the dark comedy, Seven Beauties. The film earned four Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role and a writing category that no longer exists- "Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen--based on factual material or on story material not previously published or produced." Although the film was made in 1975, it received the Oscar nomination on the '76 ballot, also the year of Rocky and A Star is Born. Giancarlo Giannini gave a passionate, harrowing performance and deserved his Best Actor nomination. Set in Naples during World War II, Seven Beauties is the story of Pasqualino, a brother always defending the honor of his family. When a pimp forces his sister to work as a prostitute, refusing to marry her and then verbally insulting the family, Pasqualino commits murder and then admits to the murder, saying he did it to protect the honor and name of his family. His lawyer convinces him to plead insanity for a lesser sentence. Desperate to get out of the insane asylum, he volunteers to join the military. What follows is a heart-wrenching account from the trenches of war. As bleak as the story is, Wertmüller and Giannini manage to fit in some serious comedy relief. The film is an artistic testament to the cruelty of mankind and the moral struggle between good and evil. 


The quality most refreshing in the films of Lina Wertmüller is the political incorrectness within her screenplays. Her writing was light years ahead of its time, yet her style and freedoms were very much of the '60s and 70s. Some scenes are almost uncomfortable to watch but they transport the audience back to a time when people weren't so easily offended, and could appreciate the artistry and craft of writing dialogue. Wertmüller’s freedom with words like communism, socialism, fascism, idealism, Marxism, capitalism and the ease with which her characters engage in heated political exchanges demonstrates the brilliant collaboration and rooted understanding she had with her actors and their complete freedom of expression. The depth of the dialogue and the articulately developed characters with their complexities and idiosyncrasies speak volumes to Wertmüller’s talent as a screenwriter. Her characters have painful pasts, which become apparent right away. 


At 89-years-old, Lina Wertmüller is still very much relevant. Director Valerio Ruiz presented his documentary film about the icon in 2015 at the 72nd Venice Film Festival. Behind the White Glasses honors the life and work of Wertmüller. Artists like Martin Scorsese, Sophia Loren and Giancarlo Giannini talk about their experiences working with her and the qualities that make her so unique.