The first of two Nobel Prizes was awarded to Marie Curie in 1903. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, west to east, in 1932 and, in 1936, Beryl Markham did the same thing in the opposite, more difficult direction. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, also a solo flight. Yet, the powers-that-be did not deem a woman worthy of a Best Director Oscar nomination until January 1977.
That it happened in that particular benchmark year, the apex of the Golden Seventies in filmmaking, was a feat in itself – Lina Wertmüller not only managed to edge-out the likes of Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Frederico Fellini (Fellini’s Casanova), but also landed nods for her own original screenplay, her lead actor, (Giancarlo Giannini), and slotted her film, Seven Beauties, in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Of course she didn’t win anything, but Wertmüller had smashed through that glass ceiling – and she did it the hard way.
Her trademark white-framed glasses and penchant for whimsical film titles somewhat camouflaged her staunch ideals, political beliefs and her role as a different breed of feminist who was never afraid of controversy. As a child she was supposedly expelled from a dozen Catholic schools. When her father insisted she become a lawyer, she chose theatre school, joining a puppet troupe upon graduation. Imagine the reaction of her Swiss aristocratic relatives.
When Fellini asked her to be an assistant director on 8 ½, the die was cast – film would be Wertmüller’s playground and soapbox. She began her climb in 1963 and increasing acclaim came with each film. When the rebellious Seventies took hold, Wertmüller was ready to deliver, and deliver she did. Few directors – and certainly no women directors – managed to present controversial material that drew as much fearful mirth from establishment audiences as she did.
Anglo audiences and critics began to take her seriously in 1972 with The Seduction of Mimi, then Love and Anarchy (’73), and All Screwed Up (’74). There was a second film in ’74, however, that yanked the spotlight and announced, “Here I am, ready or not” to international audiences. Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August showed the world just how far Wertmüller was willing to go, creatively, to make her point.
The story involves two castaways, a macho, working class deckhand (Giannini) and his rich bitch boss lady. Now, understand that Wertmüller is a dyed-in-the-wool feminist with Tower of Pisa leanings to the Left. Her tricky pathway through the film was to present the battle of both the classes and the sexes, inverting roles of domination to present a new way of seeing the ways things are and the way, perhaps, they should be.
Swept Away was mainstream guerilla filmmaking…and it garnered acclaim and catcalls, the latter, especially, by feminists who felt Wertmüller had abandoned them. She hadn’t, as careful viewing of the film reveals. She was simply making her point in a manner that would be remembered. Madonna and Guy Ritchie attempted a remake, but without the nuance and boldness – and skill – of Wertmüller, they ended up with nothing more than an embarrassing floatie.
The very next year, an un-phased Wertmüller unleashed her no-holds-barred WWII epic, Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties), the brutal and darkly hilarious adventures of the cocky, swaggering Pasqualino, again starring her muse, Giannini. When he discovers that one of his sisters has become a prostitute, he murders her pimp and ineptly attempts to dismember the evidence. Caught, he’s sentenced to serve in the military, deserts, and, after several mishaps, lands in a concentration camp. To survive, Pasqualino decides he must unleash his only skill and charm the ruthless Wagnerian nightmare of a commandant (Shirley Stoller).
From the famous opening sequence to the end credits, Wertmüller shocks and entertains to a degree that no filmmaker would even attempt today. Wertmüller is unabashed in her politics, her feminism and her particular disdain for conformity and political correctness.
While declaiming misogyny, sexism, capitalism, machismo and war is one thing, showing it through her various prisms is quite another. As the nouveau-conservatism blossomed internationally her star began to descend. Although she worked well into the new millennium, she never again achieved the attention she received in the Seventies… until 2017.
The Boston Society of Film Critics gave her a “special award” when they “re-discovered” Seven Beauties on its 40th anniversary, something I heartily recommend to all neophyte cinephiles out there in the dark. Lina Wertmüller will open your mind, make you laugh, wince, and, at some point, probably piss you off. She was a force in 20th Century filmmaking, and the likes of Jane Campion, Sophia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig owe her a huge abbracciare for the path she carved through the male-dominated jungle of film directing.
So, on this International Women’s Day: Lina Wertmüller, salute!