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The Essential Lina Wertmüller

May 5 - June 1

“A giant talent that won’t be cut down to size by apprehensions of whether or not something is in good taste.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“The greatest woman director since…uh…well, let’s say the woman director to put woman-directing on the map.” — Molly Haskell, Village Voice

This retrospective celebrates a director whose controversial vision of the social order and gender relations has most often been expressed through comedies as nose-thumbingly individual as they are daring, cheeky, rude, and politically uncompromising. A new digital restoration of SWEPT AWAY is a highlight of the series of seven key films, which also includes BEHIND THE WHITE GLASSES, a lively documentary on her career. The series opens on Friday, May 5, with her Oscar-nominated SEVEN BEAUTIES, followed by a reception hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute.

Flamboyance would appear to come naturally to the director/screenwriter who was born in 1928 as Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller Santa Maria von Elgg Spañol von Braueich, and whose great-great-grandfather, a Swiss baron, emigrated to Italy in the wake of a dueling scandal. Upper-class, yet a rebel, anti-Fascist and self-proclaimed socialist from an early age, she claimed to have been expelled from fifteen schools. The young Wertmüller turned to frequent moviegoing to counterbalance her strict Catholic education, though the movies were not her first career choice. She shocked her aristocratic Roman family by enrolling in theater school and touring with an avant-garde puppet troupe.

Fortuitously, Wertmüller’s old school chum Flora Carabella married Marcello Mastroianni, who introduced her to Federico Fellini. After more than a decade of varied work that had encompassed television, radio, theater, writing, acting, and public relations, she got her first up-close taste of working in the film world when Fellini hired her as his assistant director on 8½. The opportunity was a life-changer, and the aesthetic influence a lasting one, but Wertmüller soon took off in her own direction, first making a documentary about the making of 8½, and then utilizing her new production contacts to direct her first fiction feature THE LIZARDS (1963).

Despite favorable notice for THE LIZARDS, it was to be another ten years before Wertmüller hit her stride as a director. She then made her five best-known films, THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, LOVE AND ANARCHY, ALL SCREWED UP, SWEPT AWAY, and SEVEN BEAUTIES, in quick succession between 1972 and 1975. Enormous international acclaim was hers following the release of SWEPT AWAY, and SEVEN BEAUTIES brought her the first-ever Oscar Best Director nomination for a woman. In the U.S., she was an arthouse darling, proclaimed by critics to be reaching the heights of Bergman and Godard.

Class struggle is the theme that Wertmüller addressed in every film, and in every case it played out as a battle of the sexes, whether on the streets of Milan, where randy rubes search for love in ALL SCREWED UP, most grotesquely in a Nazi death camp in SEVEN BEAUTIES, or in an 18th-century court in FERDINANDO AND CAROLINA. Her inspired regular casting of liquid-eyed Giancarlo Giannini as her working-class macho icon, and Mariangela Melato as the callous aristocrat, drew fire from feminists when violence-tinged relationships along patriarchal lines violated all boundaries of political correctness, as they always do in trademark fashion in Wertmüller’s films.

It was perhaps a skewed take on the novelty of Wertmüller’s status as the sole female director of world prominence at the time that led to the expectation that she also function as the standard-bearer and role model for all women. She made no apologies and rejected the assumption that films directed by a woman need express a delicate sensibility or abide by unspoken societal guidelines for her gender, whether those be traditional or newly-minted feminist. With enormous gusto for life and an outsized sense of humor, she interpreted life and society as she saw it, not as her audience might wish it to be.

— Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming


For their cooperation in presenting this series, the Gene Siskel Film Center thanks: Jonathan Hertzberg, Kino Lorber Films; and Alberta Lai, Director, Italian Cultural Institute, Chicago.