Lina Wertmüller Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lina Wertmüller 1928–

Italian director, and writer.

Wertmüller's tales of Italians victimized by their political system are variously termed feminist, antifeminist, capitalist, and communist. A controversial filmmaker who creates social satire in the tradition of Chaplin, it is evident that she encompasses many aspects of Italian life in her work. Her fellow countrymen are portrayed as torn between dignity and survival, often making choices that serve only to insure their preservation. While popularly received in the United States, Wertmüller's films have failed to gain critical acclaim in Italy, most likely due to a fluctuating political position that has little bearing on American thought. Her stance has been termed socialist-anarchist, though some find her a sociologist rather than a socialist. Alternately, she revels in and mocks the idiosyncrasies of the Italians, showing them as puppets of their country's faltering political system.

Wertmüller disdained her family's advice to pursue a career in law, choosing instead to study at the Academy of Theatre in Rome. Upon graduation, she traveled with an Italian puppet theater. Later positions resulted in a meeting with Federico Fellini, who asked her to assist him with his motion picture 8 1/2. Fellini's influence is strongly evident in her films, particularly in the way she utilizes ribald, vulgar humor. She also shares his interest in grotesque characters and his need to juxtapose reality and fantasy, creating an elaborate form of social disorder.

Her first independent film, The Lizards, was influenced by the neorealistic interest in social commitment to the lower classes, as well as being heavily indebted to Fellini's I Vitelloni. Let's Talk About Men, her next film, is considered a feminist film, though Wertmüller feels it is more general in tone, sexual roles serving rather as an analogy for the interaction of individuals in society. Let's Talk About Men reveals her droll humor, presenting her characters as both ridiculous and noble. The Seduction of Mimi proved to be Wertmüller's first major success. In this social parody of the disintegration of both society and industry, Wertmüller's comic treatment of a metal worker's struggles sharply delineates the way many Italians must prostitute themselves in order to survive. Mimi is the first of Wertmüller's anti heroes; by trying to avoid the system, he finally plays right into it. Her next film, Love and Anarchy, is considered by some a political doctrine of anarchism; others find it a study of political roots that uses a brothel as an analogy for fascism.

Later films became more controversial, such as Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. It is the story of two people stranded on a desert island while locked into their servant-master roles. Ultimately, the roles are reversed, but only temporarily. Many found its portrayal of women degrading, though Wertmüller insists that the petty, vindictive, and demanding female, Rafaella, is intended to symbolize society in general rather than women in particular. Other critics, however, feel Wertmüller adopted this stance after the completion of the film, and claim she embraces whatever political school of thought seems convenient. However, Swept Away did not provoke the critical uproar of Seven Beauties. While popularly received, this story of a would-be ladies' man in a German prison camp has been accused of turning Nazi atrocities into cartoon fare. Many find it an insightful though horrible farce, but Wertmüller's technique of presenting situations that alternately amuse and shock the viewer disturbed several critics, who felt the film's popular reception was indicative of America's general insensitivity.

Though Wertmüller's political affiliations are ambiguous and seem to vary frequently, it appears that her essential political stance is humanistic, embracing no particular doctrine. She devotes her films to the masses, in her own words, and regards cinema, primarily, as 'tricks and fantasy."