Wertmüller, Lina (1928—)

views updated

Wertmüller, Lina (1928—)

Award-winning Italian filmmaker and writer whose stylish and often controversial films made her one of the first women directors to achieve international acclaim . Name variations: Lina Wertmuller; (pseudonyms) Nathan Wich, George H. Brown. Pronunciation: VERT-mew-ler. Born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Español von Brauchich on August 14, 1928, in Rome, Italy; daughter of Frederico Wertmüller (a lawyer) and Maria (Santamaria) Wertmüller; attended 15 private Catholic schools; received teacher's certification, Academy of Theater, Rome, 1951; married Enrico Job (an art director), in 1968; no children.


Silver Sail at the Locarno Film Festival, Switzerland, for The Lizards (1963); Nino Manfredi received the Silver Ribbon Award for acting in Italy for Wertmüller's Let's Talk About Men (1965); Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Seduction of Mimi (1972); Giancarlo Giannini received the Best Actor Award at Cannes for Wertmüller's Love and Anarchy (1973); Seven Beauties received four American Academy Award nominations: Best Foreign Film, Giancarlo Giannini for Best Actor, and Wertmüller for Best Director and Best Screenplay (1976).

Did various work in the theater:

produced contemporary plays, toured with a puppet company, wrote plays and scripts for television, acted, designed sets, and worked as a stage manager and publicist (1951–62); worked as assistant director for Federico Fellini for film(1962); wrote, directed and produced for the cinema, theater, television and radio.


The Lizards (1963); "Gian Burrasca's Diary" (TV, 1965); Let's Talk About Men (1965); "Rita the Mosquito" (TV, 1966); "Don't Sting the Mosquito" (TV, 1967);Belle Starr (1968); The Seduction of Mimi (1972); Love and Anarchy (1973); All Screwed Up (1974); Seven Beauties (1975); Swept Away … by An Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1975); The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain (1977); Blood Feud (Revenge, 1978); "E Una Domenica Sera Di Novembre" (TV, 1981); A Joke of Destiny, Lying in Wait Around the Corner Like a Robber (1983); A Jealous Man (1984); Complicated Intrigue of Back Alleys and Crimes (1985); A Summer Night (1986); To Save Nine (1989); Saturday, Sunday and Monday (1990); Ciao Professore (1992).


Violent City (1970); Brother Sun, Sister Moon (directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1972); and for most films she directed.


Love and Magic in Mama's Kitchen; Two and Two are No Longer Four (produced in 1968, directed by Franco Zeffirelli).


The Screenplays of Lina Wertmüller; Avrei Voluto Uno Zio Esibizionista (autobiography).

In the family of the Italian moviemaker with the Germanic name, tradition has it that Lina Wertmüller's great-great-grandfather left his native Zurich, Switzerland, for Naples after killing a man in a duel over a woman. True or not, it is a good tale to explain the lineage of a spectacular storyteller, who also claims to have inherited the same ancestor's fiery temperament. Wertmüller was born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Español von Brauchich in Rome, on August 14, 1928, while Italy was under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. While the dictator known as Il Duce had brought some economic improvements to his floundering country, he headed a repressive government that allowed its people only one political party, and in the 1930s negotiated a pact with Hitler's Germany which drew his country into World War II against the European allies.

Lina's father Frederico Wertmüller, a lawyer, was considered something of a dictator within his own family. He ruled over the household and his wife Maria Santamaria Wertmüller with an iron hand. While Frederico's political sympathies were to some extent on the side of Il Duce, the family also had many friends who were against the Mussolini regime, and the Wertmüllers themselves sheltered a family of Jews from the Holocaust, when all European Jews were at risk of being sent to concentration camps. Lina, who grew up with one older brother Enrico (who would serve later as the publicist for her films), remembers her childhood as filled with arguments, especially between herself and her father. Maria Wertmüller, after being submissive for most of her life, would finally rebel against Frederico and divorce him, ending a marriage of 50 years.

What I hope to express in my films is my great faith in the possibility of man becoming human.

—Lina Wertmüller

As a girl, Lina's rebelliousness extended to her strict Catholic schools. In fact, her fascination with Hollywood began as she snuck out of school to see movies at the Regina Cinema; she would eventually be expelled from 15 schools. After World War II, she enrolled in law school to please her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer like himself. At the same time, she and her friend Flora Carabella (Mastroianni) began studying at the Academy of Theater, and it was soon evident that law had lost and drama school won out. She graduated from the Academy of Theater in 1951 and spent the next ten years working in theater and television. For awhile, she and friends had an experimental theater group which eventually failed, partly because they charged no admission for performances. Wertmüller then toured Europe with the puppet troupe of Maria Signorelli , alarming audiences with stories by Franz Kafka instead of the usual fairy tales.

In 1961, through her friend Carabella who had married the Italian movie actor Marcello Mastroianni, Wertmüller met the illustrious director Federico Fellini; he hired her as an assistant director on his groundbreaking film 8½. Not long after its completion, Wertmüller was able, with the support of Fellini and help from some of his crew, to get backing to direct a script she had written called The Lizards. Released in 1963, the film centered around life in a small Italian town and three young boys whose chief interests are girls and being in the sun. Shown at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland that year, the movie won a Silver Sail Award.

Wertmüller next directed a 1965 television musical, "Gian Burrasca's Diary," for which she also wrote the script. Her second film, Let's Talk About Men, about the ways men treat women, garnered a Silver Ribbon, the Italian equivalent of the Academy Award for its male lead, Nino Manfredi. By 1966, Wertmüller's work was well regarded, but she could not get financial backing for another film, so she returned to television to make "Rita the Mosquito" under the name George H. Brown. This was the first time she directed the actor Giancarlo Giannini, whose name was to become virtually synonymous with her films. In 1967, when Wertmüller directed "Don't Sting the Mosquito," the sequel to "Rita," its crew included Franco Fraticelli as film editor and Enrico Job as art director. The following year, Wertmüller married Job, and both he and Fraticelli have worked on Wertmüller's productions ever since. It is Giancarlo Giannini, however, whom Job credits with the blossoming of Wertmüller's career. Giannini recommended her play Two and Two are No Longer Four to Franco Zeffirelli, who directed the work with Giannini as the star and Job as designer.

In 1971, Wertmüller was able to direct her new film script, The Seduction of Mimi. Again starring Giannini, the comedy concerns a man who goes from youthful idealism to resigned conformism. For her work, Wertmüller was named Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972. The following year, Giannini received the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role in Love and Anarchy, Wertmüller's deeply moving work about a young man who tries to assassinate Mussolini. The film earned its director wide acclaim, and won her the respect of critics like Peter Biskind, who wrote that Wertmüller's films "reveal a mature and major talent." Paul Zimmerman wrote in Newsweek that Love and Anarchy established "Wertmüller as the most exciting woman director on the international scene."

In 1975, Swept Away … by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, was another smash hit. Released in the U.S. simply as Swept Away, the movie is about a rich society woman on a yacht who dominates an ordinary seafarer during a cruise. When the two become stranded on a small island, their roles are reversed. The man maintains power and control as long as the woman is dependent on him for survival, but when they are returned to civilization, the romance ends as they revert to their previous lives.

By 1975, Wertmüller had achieved both popular and critical success, although not without controversy. Objections arose over a number of her scenes, including the physical abuse inflicted on the woman in Swept Away, and the treatment of an extremely heavy-set woman as grotesque in The Seduction of Mimi. To capitalize on the publicity, a 1973 Wertmüller production, All Screwed Up, was released in the U.S. to mixed reviews, while the film world awaited her much-touted new film, Seven Beauties. About an Italian man being held in a German concentration camp who will do anything to survive, including seduce the woman who is in charge, Seven Beauties opened in 1975 to critical raves and a firestorm of accusations about its insensitivity. Critic John Simon called the work "an upward leap in seven-league boots that propels her into the highest regions of cinematic art, into the company of the major directors," but Pauline Kael found it to be "a grotesque vaudeville show."

At the pinnacle of her popular success, Wertmüller was awarded a contract with Warner Bros. to make four films. Going for the long titles she likes, the director made The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain, about the marital relationship between an Italian journalist, again played by Giannini, and an American photographer, played by Candice Bergen . The film was handsome but talky and not well received; soon afterward the contract was canceled.

When Wertmüller directs, she immerses herself totally in the production. While cast and crew are on the set, they must forget their outside lives. The total dedication makes the atmosphere electric with energy and tension. Wearing her signature white-frame glasses, her red-brown hair styled short, and laden with necklaces, bracelets, and rings, Lina Wertmüller has always demonstrated her own individual style. Her husband Enrico oversees the production design on all her films, in charge of the visual elements, while the two confer on every other aspect of the business end. Job has worked as an artist, producing paintings, sculpture, photography, poetry, and performance art, as well as a stage and set designer. Wertmüller is small in stature, and Job is over six feet tall; she is energetic and he more contained. Together they provide a good balance for each other. They live with Lina's mother in a "penthouse apartment jumbled with ill-assorted artifacts in Rome."

In the late 1970s, Wertmüller continued to write and direct, but failed to draw the attention she had with her earlier works. While most of her stories have been provocative combinations of comedy and tragedy that managed to touch effectively on society, politics, materialism, and sex, their frequent ambiguity and openness to interpretation has not made them lastingly popular with American audiences. Beginning with Blood Feud (Revenge) in 1979 and A Joke of Destiny, Lying in Wait Around the Corner Like a Robber in 1983, she slipped out of favor with most filmgoers and critics in the United States, although she continued to create productions in Italy for various media. In 1992, she began to win back her audiences with Ciao, Professore (originally titled Me, Let's Hope I Make It), released in the U.S. in 1994 to favorable reviews. A departure from her political-sexual films of the past, Ciao, Professore concerns a teacher and his reluctant students. "Lina's uncanny savvy in picking the right faces and figures for each character builds instant audience rapport," wrote John Simon, who further observed that the film "returns Miss Wertmüller to the heights she achieved with her early movies." Wertmüller remains, meanwhile, one of the first women to build an international reputation as an artist in film, and the creator of a number of the medium's truly lasting works.


Contemporary Authors. Vols. 97–100. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 16. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Current Biography Yearbook, 1976. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1977.

Ferlita, Ernest, and John R. May. The Parables of Lina Wertmüller. NY: Paulist Press, 1977.

Film Index International. British Film Institute, 1994.

Gerard, Lillian. "The Ascendance of Lina Wertmüller," in American Film. Vol. 1, no. 7. May 1976, pp. 20–27.

Michalczyk, John J. The Italian Political Filmmakers. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.

suggested reading:

Wakeman, John. World Film Directors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Evelyn Bender , Ed.D., librarian, Philadelphia School District, Pennsylvania