Lina Wertmüller, Italian director of provocative films, dies at 93

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Lina Wertmüller, Italian director of provocative films, dies at 93
Lina Wertmüller with Giancarlo Giannini, who starred in many of her films, at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1975. Lina Wertmüller, who combined sexual warfare and leftist politics in the provocative, genre-defying films “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties,” which established her as one of the most original directors of the 1970s, died overnight at her home in Rome, the Italian Culture Ministry and the news agency LaPresse said on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. She was 93. Meyer Liebowtiz/The New York Times.

by William Grimes

NEW YORK, NY.- Lina Wertmüller, who combined sexual warfare and leftist politics in the provocative, genre-defying films “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties,” which established her as one of the most original directors of the 1970s, died overnight at her home in Rome, the Italian Culture Ministry and the news agency LaPresse said Thursday. She was 93.

The culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said in a statement that Wertmüller’s “class and unmistakable style” had left its mark on Italian and world cinema. “Grazie, Lina,” he said.

She was the first woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for best director, for “Seven Beauties” (1975).

Wertmüller, an Italian despite the German-sounding last name, burst onto the cinematic scene with a series of idiosyncratic films that propelled her to the front rank of European directors. All had screenplays written by her, and most relied on the talents of her two favorite actors: Giancarlo Giannini, usually cast as a hapless male chauvinist victimized by the injustices of Italian society and baffled by women, and Mariangela Melato as the always difficult and complicated love interest.

In the broad sense, Wertmüller was a political filmmaker, but no one could ever quite figure out what the politics were. A lively sense of human limitations tempered her natural bent toward anarchy. Struggle was noble and the social structure rotten, but the outcome was always in doubt.

Antiquated codes of honor undo the title character in “The Seduction of Mimi,” a dimwitted Sicilian laborer, played by Giannini, whose neglected wife stages a sexual revolt. In “Swept Away” (1974), Wertmüller upended the Italian power structure by giving the humble deckhand Gennarino (Giannini again) absolute power over the rich and arrogant Raffaella (Mercato) after a shipwreck.

After being dominated and abused, Gennarino turns the tables, and Raffaella becomes his adoring slave — until the two are rescued, and the old order reasserts itself. Feminists objected. With a characteristic bit of obfuscation, Wertmüller explained that since Raffaella embodies bourgeois society, “therefore she represents the man.”

In “Seven Beauties” (1975), Wertmüller again courted outrage by using a German concentration camp as the setting for a grim comedy, with farcical overtones. This time, Giannini played Pasqualino Farfuso, a craven Neapolitan deserter and two-bit charmer who, determined to survive at all costs, seduces the camp’s sadistic female commandant and, directed by her, murders other prisoners. Critics were divided over the merits of the film, but it earned Wertmüller the Oscar nomination. Not until 1994, when Jane Campion was nominated for “The Piano,” would another woman be nominated for directing.

Wertmüller’s reputation, always more elevated in the United States than in Europe, remained uncertain. With “Seven Beauties,” critic John Simon wrote, Wertmüller ascended “into the highest regions of cinematic art, into the company of the major directors.” Critic David Thomson, on the other hand, ascribed her American popularity in the 1970s as “probably inevitable in a country ravenous for a female purveyor of smart cultural artifacts.”

And her brand of sexual politics encountered hostility from critics like Pauline Kael, Molly Haskell and Ellen Willis, who called her “a woman-hater who pretends to be a feminist.”

Tiny and voluble, with a fierce smile and instantly recognizable white-framed eyeglasses, Wertmüller disarmed criticism by unleashing verbal torrents of explanation in a gravelly alto. Vincent Canby, after listening to her hold forth during a publicity tour for her first English-language film, “The End of the World in Our Usual Bed on a Night Full of Rain” (1978), wrote in The New York Times that she spoke “with enthusiasm and at such length and so articulately that (to vary an old Hollywood joke) it seems Warner Brothers might do better to scrap the film and distribute the director.”

Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich was born in Rome on Aug. 14, 1928, to a family of noble Swiss ancestry. Her mother was the former Maria Santamaria-Maurizio; her father, Federico, was a successful lawyer and a domestic tyrant with whom she quarreled constantly. After obtaining a teaching certificate, she hedged her bets by enrolling simultaneously in law school and a Stanislavskian drama academy in Rome. Theater won out.

During the 1950s, Wertmüller toured with a puppet theater, wrote musical comedies for television and worked as an actress and stage manager. Her best friend, married to Marcello Mastroianni, introduced her to Federico Fellini, who hired her as an assistant director on “8 1/2,” a life-changing experience that opened the world of film to her.

In 1963 she directed her own film, “The Lizards,” a study of provincial life in the vein of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni.” It was followed by the quirky “Let’s Talk About Men” (1965), a study of sexual politics that foreshadowed her later explorations of the subject.

Wertmüller’s long collaboration with Giannini began in television, when she directed him in the musical “Rita the Mosquito” (1966) and its sequel “Don’t Sting the Mosquito” (1967), whose art director, Enrico Job, she married in 1968.

Job died in 2008. Wertmüller adopted Maria Zulima Job, her husband’s child with another woman, shortly after the child's birth in 1991. Her daughter survives her..

The 1970s presented Wertmüller with two of her richest subjects: the changing sexual politics brought about by feminism, and increasing political turbulence in Italy as old social structures and attitudes buckled under the pressures of modernity. “The Seduction of Mimi,” chosen as an official entry at the Cannes festival in 1972, immediately established her as an important new filmmaker. “Love and Anarchy” (1973), with Giannini playing a bumbling country boy who tries to assassinate Benito Mussolini, and the social satire “All Screwed Up” (1974) solidified her reputation for idiosyncratic political films blending tragedy and farce.

Somewhat paradoxically, her career went into steep decline after the Academy nomination, although in 2019 she received an honorary Oscar for her work, and in 2016 she was the subject of a documentary, “Behind the White Glasses.”

“The bubble seemed to burst,” British critic Derek Malcolm told The Guardian, adding that “she could do nothing right.”

The titles of the films grew even longer and the critical response more uniformly hostile. “The End of the World,” with Candice Bergen as an American photographer and feminist engaged in marital struggle with an Italian communist played by Giannini, was roundly dismissed as raucous and incoherent. Each succeeding film seemed to bear out Michael Wood’s observation, in The New York Review of Books, that Wertmüller’s work displayed “a stunning visual intelligence accompanied by a great confusion of mind.”

By the early 1990s, she had qualified for inclusion in Variety’s “Missing Persons” column. “Ciao, Professore” (1994), about a schoolteacher from northern Italy mistakenly transferred to a poor school near Naples, suggested a return to form, but on a small scale and with an unexpected sweetness. For perhaps the first time in her career, Wertmüller faced the charge of sentimentality.

To this, as to all criticism, she responded by invoking the ultimate authority: herself. Her films, she liked to say, were made to please an audience of one, and her methods were intuitive.

“I am sure of things only because I love them,” she said. “I am born first. Only then do I discover.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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