Born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich in Rome in 1928, the famous Italian film director Lina Wertmüller came from a devout Catholic family of distant Swiss descent on her father’s side. She called her childhood “an adventure.” It surely must have been, as she was expelled from 15 different Catholic high schools. She took an early interest in theatre and film and worked in various capacities producing plays throughout Europe. A breakthrough came when her friend from high school (which liceo?) married Marcello Mastroianni; he introduced her to Federico Fellini. She became his assistant director for 8½ (1963).
She began directing her own films beginning in 1963 and although she produced at least 16, she is best known for four of them from the 1970s: The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), Swept Away (1974) and Seven Beauties (1975). Like her own name, she sometimes gave lengthy and whimsical titles to her films. For example, Swept Away was actually Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. She holds the Guinness Book of Records for the longest movie title: Blood Feud (1978) was originally Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova.
Wertmüller’s work shows great empathy for the Italian working class, particularly as victims of the politically powerful. In The Seduction of Mimi, the protagonist is a Communist, but his main focus is finding work; he is thwarted by the mafia at every turn. In Love and Anarchy, the protagonist is an anarchist who wants to assassinate Benito Mussolini; in the end, he is beaten to death by the fascists.
Many of Wertmüller’s films feature reversals of power in terms of class, gender, and social roles. In Swept Away, an arrogant wealthy woman Raffaella is vacationing on a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea and talks incessantly about the virtues of her class and the worthlessness of the political left. This infuriates the deckhand, Gennarino, an avowed communist, who does not voice his opinion in order to keep his job. When they are marooned on an island, he has a lot to say, and she becomes subservient to him in order to survive.
There is rape and violence in her films, and violence toward Raffaella in Swept Away. While Wertmüller was not an avowed feminist, she did often feature strong and capable women and silly and inept men. In The Seduction of Mimi, Mimi is a simple man who stumbles and fumbles his way through the world. In both this film and Seven Beauties, Wertmüller makes fun of the male machismo. In the latter film, Pasqualino is a dandy and small-time hood in Naples. He is offended that a man has turned one of his sisters into a prostitute and sets out to avenge the family honor. Yet, he kills a man, rapes a woman in a psychiatric ward, and deserts the Italian army. He is sent to a German concentration camp, where in order to survive he provides sexual favors to the obese female commandant.
Wertmüller’s films are shot in beautiful settings—Rome, the islands, even brothels and the extermination camp. Her characters are likeable no matter how inept, arrogant or criminal, perhaps because there is a sort of preposterous frenzy in many of her characters. The dialogue is enriched with dialect…and many swear words.
Lina Wertmüller became the first female director nominated for an Oscar as Best Director for Seven Beauties. She also received an honorary Oscar in 2019. Her husband, Enrico Job (1934-2008), an art designer who worked on several of her pictures, could not be with her, but her adopted daughter who was born in 1991, accompanied her during her acceptance of the honor, along with Roberta Rossellini who translated for her, and Sofia Loren.
Lina Wertmüller died recently, in December 2021.