Culture /
Cinema

Lina Wertmüller: The Seduction of Lina

“Wertmüller wrote a fundamental page in the history of the culture of Italy, portraying memorable characters and unforgettable stories.”

When we talk about empowering Italian female personalities, we cannot forget the late great Lina Wertmüller. Following the tradition of Italian Cinema, the volcanic Roman director showed the contradictions and the dichotomies of Italian society, with a personal and unique twist. 

Extravagant, political, grotesque, and behind her famous white glasses, ultimately iconic,  Lina Wertmüller was the first-ever female director to be nominated at the academy award in 1977 for the movie “Seven Beauties”, and one of the few female directors to receive an honorary Oscar in 2019. But Lina was much more than this: she was one of a kind, impossible to reduce to a handful of adjectives, and indeed a fierce artist. This article is an attempt to put into words her remarkable personality, paying her a little homage through her movies and her art. 

Born Arcangela Felice Assunta in Rome, into a Roman Catholic Swiss family of aristocratic descent, Lina was the daughter of Mari Santamaria-Maurizio and the lawyer Federico Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich. Expelled from more than a dozen Catholic schools, Lina finally found a shelter for her artistic temperament in drama school, after which she started working in theatre first and then as assistant director for Federico Fellini, during the filming of the celebrated 8 ½. Through her movies, pièces de théâtre, musicals and opera adaptations, Wertmüller wrote a fundamental page in the history of the culture of Italy, portraying memorable characters and unforgettable stories. 

Since her debut with the neo-realist movie “I Basilischi” (The Basilisks, 1963), Wertmüller wanted to question the fake certainties of the bourgeoisie, instilling doubts in the viewer, challenging middle-class ideologies and showing the hypocrisy of our society. Shot with a monochromatic technique, the movie is a stylish representation of the director’s poetry. It is a dry analysis of how patriarchal small-minded realities can oppress the life of three boys, limiting their existence to ogling women and dwindling in the small Palazzo San Gervasio village in Basilicata

After a successful adaptation of Gianburrasca for RAI, with a hilarious interpretation by Rita Pavone, several works for the theatre, and a handful of movies (Questa Volta Parliamo di Uomini, in 1965, Rita La Zanzara in 1966, Il Mio Corpo per un Poker in 1966) – the last two signed with monikers, Wertmüller hits the mark with “Mimì Metallurgico Ferito nell’Onore” (The Seduction of Mimì, 1972). The movie tells a Dostoyevskian story of a simple labourer from Sicily (Giancarlo Giannini) who, struggling between Mafia, his wife and the local communist party, decides to move to Turin, where he finds love in another woman and a job in a factory. After hideous adventures, Mimì ends up where he started his tale, Sicily, only lonely and desperate. The movie draws on important subjects close to the director, such as the role of Mafia in Italian society, the function of the socialist and communist parties, the significance of the syndicates in the worker’s rights.

The movie, “Film d’amore e d’anarchia – Ovvero “Sta mattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza…” (Love and Anarchy, 1973) narrates the story of Tunin, once again played by Giancarlo Giannini, a simple farmer from the Veneto region who travels to Rome to murder Mussolini. In Rome, he meets the prostitutes Salomè (Mariangela Melato) and Tripolina (Lina Polito) who he falls in love with. His plan does not succeed, and Tunin dies in a fascist prison, alone and desperate. Similarly to its predecessor, Love & Anarchy explores the concepts of sex and politics, how humans use sex to establish power and how power can be seen as sublimation for sex. 

Always on the verge of being too vulgar, Wertmüller movies mix flashy, vivid sexual scenes to explain poltical idelogies, especially in the following “Travolti da un Insolito Destino nell’Azzurro Mare d’Agosto” (Swept Away, 1974). The movie narrates the story of a rich snooty woman (Mariangela Melato) and poor sailor (Giancarlo Giannini) swept away on the marvellous beaches of Sardinia and how their differences will eventually transform into love. The movie is obviously a successful metaphor of the 70s, in which the snobby woman represents the North of Italy, the Capitalist economic strategist, and the bourgeoisie, whilst the broke sailor represents the South of Italy, Communism and the working-class struggle. While in the normal society the couple’s dynamic is fixed, on the island the roles are inverted, and dialectically, the master becomes the slave. Once again, Wertmüller presents a complex metaphor of gendered power relationships, offering a parody of racism between the North and the South of Italy in the 70s. 

1975’s “Pasqualino Settebellezze” (Seven Beauties) is the movie that made Lina famous all over the world providing four academy awards nominations (among those best movies and best script). Blending grotesque drama and comedy, the movie tells the picaresque story of Pasqualino (Giannini again), a layabout in Naples that ends up in a Nazi concentration camp, where he decides to survive by offering sexual favours to a commandant. He endures WWII but at a high price, questioning his humanity at the very end of the film. The movie tells a very dark story, like a twisted ​​bildungsroman, in which the character descends into the shadiest corner of the human psyche. Again using sex as a metaphor for power, Wertmüller gifted us with one of the most powerful movies about concentration camps in the history of Italy. According to the New York Times, the film was “Miss Wertmüller’s King Kong, her Nashville, her 8 ½, her Navigator, her City Lights.”

In the 70s, Lina Wertmuller managed to produce two more movies. “La Fine del Mondo nel Nostro Solito Letto in Una Notte di Luna Piena” (A Night Full of Rain, 1978) with which Lina was nominated for the best director at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival. Albeit being a witty story about the end of a relationship, with Giannini and Candice Bergen playing a talkative couple on the verge of a break-up, the movie failed to impress the critics. It is a pity as the movie is smart and brilliantly portrays the neurosis of middle-class society.  The following year she produced “Blood Feud” or “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” (which gained the title for longest title in the history of cinema, dhu!). Together with Giannini, Lina managed to bring on stage the super famous Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, acting in a Sicilian inspired feud drama. 

At the end of the 70s, Lina Wertmuller was at the centre of attention for being the director who really understood the zeitgeist of her time. It is like she managed to fit the 70s into her movies. She was speaking the language of her time, analyzing the topics of those years, hopping between comedy and drama, using crass language that really divided people. Some critics hated her, calling her a misogynist and mystantropist. Some others, like John Simon, called her ​​“The Most Important Film Director Since Bergman”. Woody Allen wanted her for the famous scene at the cinema on Annie Hall (and because she was too busy filming she sent him her famous white glasses).

The 80s and the 90s gave us a less irreverent and politically involved Lina. She continued to make good movies such as “Un Complicato Intrigo di Donne, Vicoli e Delitti” (A Complex Plot About Women, Alleys and Crimes, 1985), “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), and the important film about Aids, shot in New York, called “In Una Notte di Chiaro di Luna” (Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It’s Love, 1989). 

Constraining the genius of Lina Wertmüller in the words of an article is somehow limitating, as she was a storm of emotions and ideas. Her movies were so full of sentiments, so rich in thematics that sometimes could be too much for the viewers. Perfectly fitting into the 70s, her movies followed the utopian ideologies of the time. Those were movies full of passion, over the top, deliberately loud, and just like Lina herself dynamic and controversial.