Lina Wertmüller Essay - Critical Essays

Wertmüller, Lina


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."

Elizabeth Sussex

[Like] so many of the current generation of Italian directors …, Lina Wertmüller is building on Italy's neorealist history [in The Lizards] and using as raw material the ambivalent face of a country that, in its infinitely varied sociology, is like a microcosm of the world. In the Italian cinema neorealism is no longer an idea but an instinct, an inherited gift that, coupled with a good script, can scarcely produce a bad film. It is not therefore as surprising as it would be anywhere else to find, in Italy, a new director who can perfectly evoke a way of life—especially when, like Lina Wertmüller, she can write her own quietly effective script. The Lizards … seems, in fact, so basically unassuming that it is very easy to fall into the error of regarding it as documentary instead of the very visual kind of drama that it is…. But Lina Wertmüller's personal contribution to a theme which at first glance seems very like that of I Vitelloni … is less marked in that to some extent she is still feeling her way. It is, however, enough to point to the sequence which begins with an elderly woman committing suicide because her daughter-in-law has ousted her authority in the home…. Nothing could be further from documentary than [the] succession of images [in this sequence], nor is it symbolic except for those who like to think in symbols. To see it is, quite simply, to feel what the director wants to convey. The method might be...

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Raymond Durgnat

Lina Wertmuller's The Lizards explores the urgent, if familiar, problem of the sloth and paralysis of the Italian South, the encrusted feudalism and snide Fascism….

Because it's a good film let's tot up the debit side first, to get it over with. First of all the film hasn't enough to say that's new if one's seen I Vitelloni or I Nuovi Angeli; it's a more sensitive, more prolonged evocation, with a tinge of pessimistic irony. Second, Lina Wertmuller, like others in Italy's new wave of neo-neo-realism …, sometimes indulges a slowpaced aestheticism that saps the vitality of the story….

Having said which, let's add that The Lizards has the virtues of its faults, and in abundance, developed to the nth degree of refinement. There are images so beautiful and so simple that one literally catches one's breath. The director has the quite uncanny precision, the magical control over location, of Agnes Varda….

In its more intimate vignettes, the film easily has the edge on Visconti—the huddle of snoring bodies in a crowded room, a snoozing youth with legs jack-knifed up on a doorstep, a fat Momma cutting her husband's toenails while he monologues about the idleness of the rising generation…. (p. 30)

Something of an onlooker's film, it's a real delight for the connoisseur. (p. 31)

Raymond Durgnat, "'The Lizards'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1964; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, No. 1, October, 1964, pp. 30-1.

Stanley Kauffmann

I thought [Love and Anarchy] crude in every way, particularly in its heavy use of reverse symbols: the brothel as a refuge of purity, the innocence of the would-be murderer and the whore and their sudden love, the whole clumsy good-for-bad pageant. There was, yet once more, much exploitation of '30s decor, and Wertmuller's camera movement was hyperthyroid.

The Seduction of Mimi … is a much better picture; so it's a bit depressing, because it was made before Love and Anarchy. Still, it lets us see the latter film as a slip, instead of a norm.

It's a much better script than Love and Anarchy, but it suffers somewhat from the same disease: the author's belief that mere choice of subject brings you halfway home. Over and over we watch scenes that are supposed to break us up, waiting for the moment that will take us over the line from intent to vitality. Wertmuller's camerawork is once again frenzied, muscular, near-hysterical—overhead shots for no reason, lots of zoom (lots of zooms), and the use of distorting lenses….

Wertmuller's future seems now to rest on her ability to close, in her scripts, the gap between plan and realization; and her ability to make her steamy camera style serve her, instead of sweeping her along.

Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: 'The Seduction of Mimi'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 171, Nos. 4 & 5, July 27 & August 3, 1974, p. 20.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Despite the abundant political activity in her films, Lina Wertmuller seems to have little regard for politics. In fact, she seems to dislike it altogether. In Love and Anarchy, for instance, neither of the two main characters has any political consciousness even though both are zealous Anarchists….

[Whether] you see any political import in Wertmuller's films all depends on how the term "politics" is defined. You can't help wondering whether she isn't, like so many imaginative, self-assertive women these days, in the process of redefining it. When Mimi attacks Fiore sexually [in The Seduction of Mimi], his actions seem to parallel those of the rightwingers who attacked her a few...

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Peter Biskind

[The Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy] reveal a mature and major talent, one which shows that Fellini's influence on the films of his own country has not been wholly malign but, in the hands of a disciplined disciple …, can be made to serve large and significant purposes….

Wertmüller moves beyond bourgeois Italian modernism to demystify the experience of alienation by rendering transparent the clouded consciousness of private life. She picks up the pieces of Fellini's world, draws together the fragments of dream and memory on the one hand, and inert spectacle on the other, and shows that they are part of a whole. She reveals the peculiar historical circumstances which gave...

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Penelope Gilliatt

["Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August"] is a very Marxist film, beneath its complexion of comedy. Who belongs to whom? Is it the now unpaid wage earner to the rich employer separated from any bank? Or is it the burdensome complainer to the amused survivalist? The tenaciously habitual in arrogance to the newborn in command? The one who feels the greater need to the one who feels the freer?

Neither belongs to the other, says Lina Wertmüller, with characteristic political skepticism about emotional combat. (p. 94)

Lina Wertmüller's fine film is apparently a simple parable about a social irony, like J. M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," in which the butler in...

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Janet Maslin

You really have to watch out, when it comes to women directors, for the extent to which they tend to be overrated and for the venomous quirk that prompts some to treat their heroines more nastily than any male director might. Though Lina Wertmüller has made a couple of interesting pictures (notably The Seduction of Mimi, a good sex comedy that managed to triumph over its political pretensions), her negligible Swept Away … has been … irrationally over-praised lately….

[The opening sequence] means to show the Italian elite splashing around in the Mediterranean but is shot so unimaginatively (and scored with such irritating Muzak) that it looks like a travelogue about Hawaii…....

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William S. Pechter

[Most] of Love and Anarchy is played as farce, and quite successfully. Apart from the ending, the film's two most effective sequences are both quite straightforwardly comic ones: a long Sunday outing in the country with Tunin, the two whores, and the security chief (hilariously caricatured by Eros Pagni, something of a Mussolini look-alike); and a boisterous scene of Tunin having his first meal in the brothel…. And though one's final impression of Love and Anarchy is of a work in a tragicomic mode, the film achieves this effect not so much by a true mixture of moods, but by their drastic alternation. Things in it aren't (as they are in, say, a Seduced and Abandoned, or the films of Buñuel) an...

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John Simon

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of greatness in art: that of transcending previously known boundaries, of defying all norms; and that of perfect taste, of working with exquisite tact within one's limitations. In music, for example, this would be the difference between a Wagner or Mahler on the one hand, and a Fauré or Ravel on the other; in painting, between a Michelangelo or Picasso and a Botticelli or Degas. The artists of pure taste seem, rightly or wrongly, to possess a smaller greatness, though I often prefer them to the other sort. But there exists, fascinatingly, even a rare third kind that combines aspects of the two divergent greatnesses—artists who are, somehow, both big and small, fierce and...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[Lina Wertmüller has written and directed a tragic farce] in which the horrors are hung on a ludicrous plot. An Italian deserter, in a German prison that reeks with murder, uses his Neapolitan amatory wiles on the prison commandant—a woman built like a brewery horse—in order to save his life.

Can that be funny? Can it make us laugh when the Italian leers lecherously at the commandant as she stands in front of a hanging corpse, when he pulls that infamous prison cap down over one eye to make himself look dashing? The terrible answer is yes: because by this point in the picture farce has been interwoven with tragedy—we know we are in the hands of someone who uses farce to underscore the tragic,...

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Pauline Kael

["Seven Beauties"] is a grotesque vaudeville show. It's one act after another, with political labels stuck on the participants so you'll know what you're watching. The players come on at a sprint; they're overly spirited—the juice of life oozes out all over the place in a chorus of "Mamma mia"s. Wertmüller dances around with a hand-held camera and hauls the acts offstage fast, swinging from pathos to burlesque so that audiences won't become restless….

"Seven Beauties" is a slapstick-tragedy investigation of an Italian common man's soul, set during the Second World War, with flashbacks to the thirties. (p. 104)

The satirical "Oh Yeah" song that opens the film has a good...

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Diane Jacobs

"Man in disorder—that's the only hope," announces a cherubic prisoner in Seven Beauties; and this about defines the breadth, if not the sophistication, of Lina Wertmuller's polemic thus far…. [She] deplores Hitler (and Mussolini) and is out of sorts with a System that traps her wide-eyed little man … somewhere between freely willed and predestined chagrin. Her throbbing camera is also not so secretly in love with this socio-political System, just as her neorealist predecessors were with the war-bruised and compromised city of Rome. For with what else would she justify her messy sexual romanticism or cloak and bawdy comedy and subliminal cruelty that are the backbones of an often redundant but increasingly...

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Brooks Riley

At the heart of [Wertmuller's films] is formula—a very popular one, but a formula all the same. It may just be that when you've seen one Wertmuller, you've seen them all, or enough, or some permutation thereof….

Wertmuller's formula may raise baby Wertmullers, but such a diet can be monotonous, something the director herself must realize as she strives to one-up herself from punchline to pratfall. The ingredients—politics, buffoonery, hubris, nemesis, pathos, bathos, comedy, tragedy, melodrama, psychodrama, Giancarlo Giannini, misplaced convictions, mismotivated sex, displaced honor, dialogue permeated with the comparisons of religion and politics to the remotest banalities—are all dumped in...

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[Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August] is an original, a film unlike any other; the very length of its practically rococo title suggests that Lena Wertmüller wants us to be ready for anything. Yet it is not altogether without precedent; many of its ingredients are familiar enough. The recapture of some "state of nature" on a more or less conveniently placed desert island….

Swept Away and Antonioni's L'Avventura start out, and in a very real sense conclude, in much the same way. Both films place their protagonists by means of an opening sequence depicting a luxury yacht full of rich, bitchy, bored Italian socialites, adrift sexually and socially in the...

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Aaron Sultanik

In both [The Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy] Wertmüller is concerned with the confrontation between social consciousness-mobility and personal desires, the battle between the mind and the heart, the linear, well-or-dered road to success, and the volatile and inner emotional world. Throughout the two films Wertmüller's camera seems in perpetual motion, closing in on the characters' wild dramatic postures and affectations…. Wertmüller's exuberance and visceral lust for the physically overripe gesture interprets Giannini's intellectual romantic dilemma as a minor but comically effective derivative of Stendahl's numerous studies of politics and passion. (pp. 51-2)

[In Love...

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Penelope Gilliatt

[The credits of "Let's Talk About Men"] take us back to an era that had a notably romantic view of differences between the sexes. But Wertmüller's gaudy, droll humor is not of a kind to indulge longing thoughts that the past was better. If her characters are sometimes showoffs, cowards, piratical buffoons, that is because they are of the multitude's making; they are the crowd's flunkies. Wertmüller sees her characters with a sense of context. They are struggling individuals held back by their origins: products poorly manufactured by society. (p. 82)

Sometimes the idea is cultivate now that Lina Wertmüller, simply because she is a woman, can be judged adequately only by women's-lib theorists, who...

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Konrad Kellen

The stage direction is vast, the images are impressive, the spectacle is spectacular, the photography sensational. The content is filth, insanity, trash.

Lina [in Seven Beauties] generates her own world of insane, vicious, filthy unreality and palms off her own world to the moral and mental illiterates without number in the Western world as a hot piece of realism, a hot piece of art, a hot morality play.

Lina's shtick scores a number of firsts even in our era of bloody, sordid and raucous entertainment. What is outstanding is her using the victims of Nazism as mere props, background, scenery—extras. No matter how exploitative, and therefore counter-productive,...

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Lucy Quacinella

That Wertmuller is a thoroughly professional show-woman with an astonishing knack for the comic as well as the grotesque can hardly be denied. But is all the commotion about politically conscious cinema really justified?

Consider Love and Anarchy. Despite the quotation from Enrico Malatesta, a 19th Century anarchist, the film has no politically revolutionary moral…. The film may be sensitive to the interaction between the personal and the political, but the individualistic description it gives is thoroughly unrepresentative of the development of political consciousness among Italy's peasant and working classes, recognized as one of the most advanced in Western Europe. The film's focus on a...

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David Bartholomew

In Let's Talk About Men, a film made up of four short tales and a connective story, Lina Wertmuller talks about anarchy, love, seduction, beauty. And men, although the drive of this film—and of most of her films—is provided by its women. (p. 47)

Let's Talk About Men is a disappointment. Only the last story, with some notion of applying camera movement and mise-en-scène to theme, looks ahead to the sleek styling of later Wertmuller. The stories are all set-bound, talky and roughly edited…. The last story in the film is evidence that Wertmuller's talent needs only the shaping of experience.

Seen in retrospect, this early film remains one of Wertmuller's...

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Robert Hatch

The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain—a title that cumbersome is as good a way as any to assure attention for a movie that otherwise might not attract much comment. In her latest work Lina Wertmuller refers to serious, not to say fashionable, topics of international concern: the women's drive for equality; the fact that, while a relatively few people are far too rich, the vast majority of people are far too poor; the savagery with which nations apply military sanctions at levels safely below the critical mass of nuclear warfare; the alleged imminent death by pollution of the only planet available to us. But the couple whose personal history evokes these considerations … are...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Wertmuller's best work to date, such films as Seven Beauties, All Screwed Up, The Seduction of Mimi … had superb vigor, the zest of real assurance and real skill, and a rococo filigree that she had learned from Fellini…. Most of her film-making energies are in [The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain], too, but unlike her past work, they are not applied to very much. Here we get little more than the energies….

The picture begins and ends, as the title implies, in the marriage bed, with a number of flashbacks and excursions to explain what led up to it and what [the couple's] relations are. The story as such could hardly be more stale, but what keeps reminding...

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John Simon

That Wertmüller's new film, The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain, is an almost total failure should, on reflection, not be surprising. This is the story of the courtship and marriage of a young American woman photographer and an Italian journalist … which has to carry several bone-crushing burdens….

Though the film is adequately Englished, it has clearly been thought and felt in Italian, and thinking and feeling are much harder to translate than words. The result is a certain crude oversimplification of plot and character—to say nothing of dialogue—that is very different from Wertmüller's usual healthy vulgarity studded with flashes of poetry.


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Bruno Bettelheim

If ["Seven Beauties"] is to be taken for mere entertainment, I must state my disgust that the abomination of genocide and the tortures and degradations of the concentration camp are used as a special, uniquely macabre titillation to enhance its effectiveness. But I believe that Lina Wertmüller, the director, had more in mind, even though at certain moments the opportunities her story offered for sophisticated deathhouse comedy may have carried her away….

I also believe that "Seven Beauties" is a somewhat uneasy, indirect, camouflaged—and therefore more dangerous, because more easily accepted and hence more effective—justification for accepting the world that produced concentration camps; it is...

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Andrew Sarris

Lina Wertmuller has nowhere to go but up after her ill-fated English-language movie, A Night Full of Rain …, but I am not sure how far up Blood Feud … actually gets. The plot is a kind of Sicilian Casablanca in the style of Seven Beauties with accompanying lectures on feminism, fascism, radical chic, abortion, machismo, and the contradictions between personal and political morality. The style of presentation oscillates between grand opera and Punch and Judy. From the beginning of her career, Wertmuller's artistic strategies have exhausted me more than they have entertained me….

By setting the film in the early period of Fascist rule in Italy, Wertmuller is able to...

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Roger Angell

Lina Wertmüller's concerns are large and unchanging—sex, honor, politics, survival—but her exploration of them is habitually so ironic, shifting, and ludicrous, and takes such unexpected turns, that people sometimes get her wrong. Her movies knock us off balance, because they can be appallingly funny or brutally satiric at one moment and wrenchingly sad at the next, or grotesque and exaggerated in their juxtapositions and suggestions but simple and reduced in their conclusions…. Miss Wertmüller's men and women—her men, particularly—are constantly being presented with farcically or gravely difficult questions, and I believe she presents a similarly hard choice to the moviegoer, which is whether to cling to...

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