| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
| link to a Google search page HERE
I hope Lina Wertmuller doesn't mind that I'm unsure of the spelling of her name. One of Italy's great film directors, her full name is Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Español von Braueich. ("Lina" is a diminutive nickname for Arcangela.) It is common to see Italian and English spellings of her name on film posters with u instead of the German ü. I don't know how she signs her name. I missed my two and only chances at the Ravello festival a few years ago. I was having a coffee at a street-side table when she passed me and walked into the pharmacy next door to the coffee bar. She actually looked at me, smiled and nodded "Good morning" as she passed. Chance #2 was that evening. She was sitting at the table next to ours in a restaurant in Ravello; I could have interrupted her dinner and erudite conversation with other film heavies to ask for her autograph so I could check the spelling. My wife prodded me: "Go ahead, be a boor! Go ahead and embarrass us, you tourist." But even I am not that gauche, so I didn't do it. (To console myself, however, I picked up a pretty nice gouache of old-time Ravello!)
The first one of her films I ever saw was called Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—commonly shortened in the English title to Swept Away...) She loves whimsically long titles! I do know a few Italians who remember the whole title, but most of them stop after destino or simply call it "That Wertmuller film where Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato wind up on the deserted island." It's from 1974; she both wrote and directed the film. Melato plays a rich, bored, arrogant, northern Italian young woman on a vacation cruise in the Mediterranean. She and one of the crew, Giannini—a poor, Communist, clueless macho male pig from southern Italy—get stranded on an island. Their social roles are reversed as he takes over their struggle to survive, a struggle that includes her, but only if she submits to him—which she does. The film was all sex and politics; some saw class warfare and some saw violence against women. Some even saw a love story. The film was delightful and outrageous at the same time.
Wertmuller was born in Rome and started her show business career touring in a puppet show. In 1962 she met Federico Fellini and got her big break, becoming assistant director on his film, 8½. Since that time she has either written or directed (often both) dozens of feature films and documentaries for the cinema or television. Her films tend to be politically and socially relevant, but you never have the feeling that you are being preached at. Or, if you have that feeling, you can overlook it because the story is good. Her work is hilarious, tragic, and bizarre—and sometimes all of those together; visually, her films are stunning and have a quality common to films from some other Italian directors; that is, you can stop the film anywhere, cut out the frame, blow it up and hang it on the wall as a work of art.
She is not the first Italian woman to be recognized as a great film director (that would be Elvira Notari), but she is the first woman (of any nationality) to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. It was for a 1975 film called, in English, Seven Beauties, and, in Italian, Pasqualino Settebellezze. "Settebellezze" is the nickname of the hero, Pasqualino Frafuso, played by Giancarlo Giannini; he is a small-time Neapolitan hoodlum who, in order to get out of jail during WWII, goes into the Italian army. He is sent north to fight alongside Italy's German allies; he deserts, is captured by the Germans and winds up in a concentration camp. The camp is run by a woman, a character loosely based on the real-life, infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," Ilse Koch. The film is about survival and is chilling. The camp commandant is played by Shirly Stoler; she is so malignantly evil that you can forget all other film villains you have ever seen. I don't know if all great films must have a signature scene, but this one does. Giannini's character decides that the only way he can survive is by seducing the commandant. She goes along with it, and together they produce one of the ugliest scenes of human sexual activity—call it "anti-love making"—ever filmed.
Lina Wertmuller is now in her eighties and still quite active. Her last film (made for TV) was in 2010 and called Mannaggia alla miseria (roughly, To Hell with Poverty). It's based on the work of Muhammad Yunus, the economist from Bangladesh who won a Nobel Prize in 2006 for developing the concepts of microcredit in order to help entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. The film is about trying to set up a system like that in Naples. Obviously, it's a comedy.
Lina Wertmuller has written a few books, including her autobiography, published in 2006. Delightfully, it has a title as long as those of some of her films because it consists of her name, an even longer version than the one in the first paragraph of this page since it also contains her married name; thus, Arcangela Felice Assunta Job Wertmüller von Elgg Español von Brauchich cioè [that is] Lina Wertmuller. It includes a CD of 32 songs that she sings, herself.
to main index to film & literature portal