In the 1970s, she was one of the dominant, and most provocative, Italian filmmakers. From behind her trademark white-framed glasses, Lina Wertmüller saw the world a little differently and the audiences responded. Her films were staples in U.S. art-house theaters, Laraine Newman impersonated her on Saturday Night Live, critics Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell took her gender politics to task, and Seven Beauties earned her a Best Director nomination at the 1977 Academy Awards, the first for a female director.
Unfortunately, history can be somewhat reductive, and as the years rolled on, Wertmüller’s name slipped into cinephile obscurity.
Thankfully, the good people at Kino Lorber Repertory have restored seven of Wertmüller’s best for theatrical screening, and three of them, plus a documentary about Wertmüller, are making their way to CU’s International Film Series.
IFS’s Wertmüller series opens with 2017’s Behind the White Glasses, documentarian Valerio Ruiz’s loving portrait of Wertmüller’s life in cinema.
White Glasses combines present-day interviews with Wertmüller, critics and collaborators alongside archival footage, effectively supplying viewers with the necessary context to unlock the social and political underpinnings of Wertmüller’s films.
It’s with this background and insight that the three films screening — Love & Anarchy (1973), Swept Away (1974) and Seven Beauties (1976) — perfectly demonstrate Wertmüller’s intimate storytelling, her no-holds-barred approach to controversial material and her sheer technical prowess. Has any other director employed the close-up better?
First up, Love & Anarchy, a period drama set in a Roman brothel during the reign of Benito Mussolini. Wertmüller’s favorite actor, Giancarlo Gianni, plays Tunin, a freckle-faced farm boy sent to Rome to assassinate Il Duce. His contact, a prostitute named Salomè (Mariangela Melato), allows him room and board in the brothel where he meets and falls for Tripolina (Lina Polito), who throws a kink in his suicide mission.
Wertmüller further ratchets up the sexual dynamics and politics for Swept Away, the story of a wealthy woman and a disgruntled servant (Melato and Gianni again) who accidentally end up on a deserted island. Their social roles are reversed and Wertmüller takes the film to places certain to elicit a healthy amount of post-screening discussion.
Both Love & Anarchy and Swept Away are great, but Seven Beauties is in a league all by itself. Gianni returns as Pasqualino, a Charlie Chaplin-esque fool who bumbles his way from the burlesque stage into the horrors of World War II concentration camps.
A cheerfully vulgar comedy ending in the Holocaust may not sound like good taste, but Wertmüller is not about taste, she is about confrontation. Her films may not progressively tackle sexual politics and gender roles the way an audience in 2017 might want, but they do challenge each viewer to either accept or reject what they are seeing.
She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.