Wertmüller, Lina (b. 1926)

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Italian scriptwriter and film director.

Born in Rome of a southern Italian father and a Swiss mother, Lina Wertmüller's full birth name was Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich, a foretaste of the equally lengthy Italian titles for which her best films are famous. After enrolling in the Accademia Teatrale, directed by Pietro Scharoff, she worked with Maria Signorelli's hand puppet company for several years. Then she turned to the state television company, the RAI, and was instrumental in directing several famous musical programs: Canzonissima and Giornalino di Gianburrasca. Introduced to Federico Fellini by a friend, Marcello Mastroianni's wife, Flora, Wertmüller became Fellini's assistant on the production of his masterpiece, 8 ½, but left his company to direct her first film, The Lizards (1963), which can best be described as a left-wing feminist version of Fellini's coming-of-age film I Vitelloni (1953) that mercilessly satirized the reactionary politics of a lethargic and male-dominated southern city. Subsequently, she would shoot several successful comedies—Let's Talk about Men (1965) , Don't Sting the Mosquito(1967)—and even a spaghetti western, The Belle Starr Story (1967), before turning to film a series of works in the 1970s that creatively combined the influence of Fellini, her experience in the theater, her feminist aspirations, and her socialist politics. These works won her international recognition, even if such renown was frequently contested by more negative Italian film critics.

Wertmüller's best works appeared in only a few short years: The Seduction of Mimi (1972); Love and Anarchy (1973); All Screwed Up (1973); Swept Away (1974); and her masterpiece, Seven Beauties (1976), for which she received the honor of being the first woman in history to be nominated (unsuccessfully) for an Oscar for best director. A few years before her successful run of films, she had written a very popular play, Two Plus Two Are No Longer Four, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Giancarlo Giannini, who was to become her favorite male lead in her best works. When she paired him with the actress Mariangela Melato in The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away, Wertmüller had discovered an unbeatable combination of acting talents. The style of Wertmüller's political comedies owed a great deal to her dramatic training and her knowledge of the stereotypical characters from Italy's traditional commedia dell'arte and puppet theater. Her most memorable figures combine that tradition with the flamboyant, baroque imagery she had learned to appreciate in Fellini's best works of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the traditional Italian film comedy (commedia all'italiana) that normally embraced a masculine perspective, her films often included a feminist twist that few male directors favored. In The Seduction of Mimi she plays with the interrelationships of politics and love in portraying a leftist metalworker who becomes embroiled with the Mafia and loses his sweetheart. Love and Anarchy turns the same feminist eye on Italy's fascist period, a popular theme in Italian cinema of the 1970s, treating the story of an anarchist who comes to Rome to assassinate Benito Mussolini but fails in his mission because he falls in love with a prostitute in one of Rome's first-class brothels. Her most controversial film, Swept Away, plays with a feminist reversal of gender comedy, creating a memorable contrast between a spoiled and wealthy anticommunist yacht owner (Melato) and a fervidly communist sailor working on the yacht (Giannini). Marooned on a desert island, the proletarian sailor takes control of the wealthy industrialist both physically and sexually, and she falls in love with him. Their love affair is destroyed, however, when they are rescued and returned to the class-bound society they had only temporarily escaped. Seven Beauties proposes a grotesque look at the European Holocaust through the eyes of a Neapolitan survivor, played masterfully by Giannini. Its tragic-comic perspective on the concentration camps anticipates Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), both of which owe a debt to the example of Federico Fellini's grotesque comedy and vivid imagery.

After reaching the apogee of international fame, Wertmüller's critical and commercial fortunes declined rapidly, beginning with her English-language debut film, A Night Full of Rain (1978), and followed by a number of works that aimed to re-create the successful works of the 1970s but failed, at times, even to achieve wide American distribution: Blood Feud (1979); A Joke of Destiny (1983); Summer Night with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes, and Scent of Basil (1986); and Ciao, Professore (1992). She has, nevertheless, kept busy with work for Italian television, directing a production of Georges Bizet's Carmen for the San Carlo Opera in Naples in 1987 and working since 1988 as an important executive at Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a position she continues to fill in the early twenty-first century. A comparison of Wertmüller's Swept Away to the embarrassing remake of this memorable feminist comedy starring Madonna in 2002 underscores just how good Wertmüller's comic films really were at the height of her success in the 1970s.

See alsoCinema.


Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. 3rd rev. ed. New York, 2001.

Cerulo, Maria Pia, et al., eds. Lina Wertmüller: Il grottesco e il barocco nel cinema. Assisi, Italy, 1993.

Ferlita, Ernest, and John R. May. The Parables of Lina Wertmüller. New York, 1977.

Wertmüller, Lina. The Screenplays of Lina Wertmüller. Translated by Steven Wagner. New York, 1977.

——. The Head of Alvise. New York, 1982.

Peter Bondanella