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


Lina Wertmüller, who has combined sexual warfare and leftist politics in provocative and genre-defying films “The Seduction of Mimi”, “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties”, which established her as one of the most successful female directors. originals from the 1970s, died overnight at her home in Rome, Italy’s Culture Ministry and LaPresse news agency said on Thursday. She was 93 years old.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said in a statement that Ms. Wertmüller’s “incomparable class and style” had left their mark on Italian and world cinema. “Grazie, Lina,” he said.

She was the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, for “Seven Beauties” (1975).

Ms Wertmüller, an Italian despite her German-sounding surname, has burst onto the film scene with a series of idiosyncratic films that have propelled her to the top of European directors. All the films had screenplays written by her, and most drew on the talents of her two favorite actors: Giancarlo Giannini, usually presented as an unfortunate macho victim of the injustices of Italian society and bewildered by women, and Mariangela Melato like the always difficult and complicated love interest.

Broadly speaking, Ms Wertmüller was a political filmmaker, but no one could ever really understand what the politics were. A keen sense of human limitations tempered his natural penchant for anarchy. The struggle was noble and the social structure rotten, but the outcome was still uncertain.

Archaic codes of honor defeat the main character of “The Seduction of Mimi”, a stupid Sicilian worker, played by Mr. Giannini, whose neglected wife stages a sexual revolt. In “Swept Away” (1974), Mrs. Wertmüller turned the Italian power structure upside down by giving the humble deckhand Gennarino (Mr. Giannini again) absolute power over the wealthy and arrogant Raffaella (Mrs. Mercato) after a shipwreck .

After being dominated and abused, Gennarino turns the tables and Raffaella becomes his beloved slave – until the two are saved and the old order reasserts itself. Feminists oppose it. With a bit of characteristic obscurity, Ms. Wertmüller explained that since Raffaella embodies bourgeois society, “therefore she represents man.”

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

Ms Wertmüller’s reputation, still higher in the United States than in Europe, remained uncertain. With “Seven Beauties”, writes the critic John Simon, she rises “in the highest regions of cinematographic art, in the company of the great directors”. Critic David Thomson, meanwhile, called his American popularity in the 1970s “probably inevitable in a country hungry for purveyors of intelligent cultural artefacts.”

And her sexual politics have met with hostility from critics like Pauline Kael, Molly Haskell and Ellen Willis, who have called Ms Wertmüller a “hatred of women who claims to be a feminist.”

Tiny and talkative, with a fierce smile and immediately recognizable white-rimmed glasses, Ms Wertmüller has disarmed criticism by unleashing torrents of verbal explanations in a gritty viola. Vincent Canby, after listening to it during a publicity tour for his 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 “enthusiastically and so at length and so clearly that (to vary an old Hollywood joke) it looks like Warner Brothers had better cut the film and distribute the director.”

Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich was born in Rome on August 14, 1928, into a family of noble Swiss descent. His mother was the former Maria Santamaria-Maurizio; her father, Federico, was a renowned lawyer and domestic tyrant with whom she constantly quarreled. After obtaining a teaching certificate, Ms Wertmüller covered her bets by simultaneously enrolling in the Faculty of Law and a Stanislavskian Drama Academy in Rome. The theater won.

During the 1950s she toured with a puppet theater, wrote musicals for television, and worked as an actress and director. Her best friend, married to Marcello Mastroianni, introduced her to Federico Fellini, who hired him as assistant director on “8½», An experience that changed his life and opened up the world of cinema to him.

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

Ms. Wertmüller’s long collaboration with Mr. 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 artistic director, Enrico Job, she married in 1968.

Mr. Job died in 2008. Ms. Wertmüller adopted Maria Zulima Job, her husband’s child with another woman, shortly after Ms. Job was born in 1991. Her daughter survives her.

The 1970s presented Ms. Wertmüller with two of her richest subjects: the evolution of sexual politics brought about by feminism and the growing political turmoil in Italy, as old social structures and attitudes crumbled under pressure from modernity. “La Séduction de Mimi”, chosen as an official entry to the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, immediately established her as an important new filmmaker. “Love and Anarchy” (1973), with Mr. Giannini playing a clumsy country boy who attempts to assassinate Mussolini, and the social satire “All Screwed Up” (1974) bolstered his reputation as idiosyncratic political films mixing tragedy and prank call.

Paradoxically enough, her career declined sharply 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”, the British critic Derek Malcolm told the Guardian, adding that “she couldn’t do anything 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 a marital struggle with an Italian Communist played by Mr. Giannini, has been categorically called rowdy and incoherent. Each subsequent film seemed to confirm Michael Wood’s observation, in The New York Review of Books, that Ms. Wertmüller’s work exhibited “astonishing visual intelligence accompanied by great confusion of mind.”

By the early 1990s, she had qualified for inclusion in Variety’s “Missing Persons” column. “Ciao, Professore” (1994), about a teacher from northern Italy who was mistakenly transferred to a poor school near Naples, suggests a return to form, but on a small scale, and with unexpected gentleness. For perhaps the first time in her career, Ms Wertmüller has been accused of sentimentality.

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

“I’m only sure about things because I like them,” she said. “I was born first. Only then do I find out.

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