Note from Jan Lisa Huttner (Editor-in-Chief of FF2 Media): Today, Jane Campion received an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category for her work on The Power of the Dog, making her the first woman in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) to be nominated in the Best Director category for a second time!
But we begin our celebration with a tribute to Lina Wertmüller, who was the very first woman nominated by AMPAS in the Best Director category. We do this as a way of marking progress. We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. We must never forget our obligations to those who bore the brunt of being “the first.” Congratulations to Jane Campion & Brava, Lina Wertmüller!
Now on with this tribute by Jarrod Emerson…
A few years ago, while researching the dearth of Academy-Award nominated female filmmakers, I discovered Italian writer/director Lina Wertmüller.
Lina Wertmüller was the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category. The year was 1977. The film was Seven Beauties. 1977 was the year of the 49th annual Academy Awards ceremony. That means it took almost 50 years for AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) to nominate its first woman in the Best Director Category!
On December 9, 2021, Lina Wertmüller passed away at the wondrous age of 93. Remembering the masterpiece Seven Beauties I wrote about for FF2, I wanted to further explore more of Lina’s work.
Ever since her time at Silvio d’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, Lina was an aspiring storyteller. Initially, she worked in theater but soon migrated to film. Lina met legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini who became a significant influence. Her best-known films were all released in the 1970s, often working with actors Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato (her longtime collaborators).
With her Academy Award Nomination for Seven Beauties, Lina shattered the celluloid ceiling as a woman in the director’s chair. She used her medium to speak about life boldly, with a female candor. Through a unique combination of comedy, drama, and tragedy, she addressed politics, sex, and misogyny. Her characters are neither solidly good nor bad – even the “heroes” have negative traits. With her unique voice and approach, Lina told stories her way, from a distinctly female POV.
Lina finally received a long-overdue honorary academy award for her exceptional career achievements in 2019. While she may be gone now, her work is forever. Posted below are my three top picks from Lina’s extensive opus: Seven Beauties (of course!), plus Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away… By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974).
SEVEN BEAUTIES (1975)
Here are a few thoughts from the review of Seven Beauties that I posted in 2019. (You can read my full review of Seven Beauties here.)
When we first meet “Pasqualino” (Giancarlo Giannini), he is close to unbearable, oozing toxic masculinity from every pore. He looks down upon his seven unattractive sisters (calling them his “seven beauties”). Considering himself the sole source and defender of dignity for the household, Pasqualino thinks himself superior to all of the others in his family. He repeatedly berates and threatens one sister – Concettina – even striking her. It isn’t until Pasqualino mistakenly shoots her pimp dead that his turbulent rabbit hole into the survival-at-all-costs of World War II begins.
Seven Beauties works as both a fish-out-of-water story and a character-driven hero’s story. Lina’s writing and Giancarlo’s wonderful performance are great reminders that just because some characters are so-called “heroes” or “protagonists” DOES NOT require them to be likable. However, it does require that the character learns something about himself… and in this case, Pasqualino learns that his machismo does not equal power.
Lina is not afraid to depict a flawed male lead, and she does not shy away from giving him some of the worst possible traits. And perhaps punishing him for it in an attempt to create balance.
LOVE AND ANARCHY (1973)
Love and Anarchy is another story of an everyman in extraordinary circumstances. We start in fascist Italy just before World War II. When “Antonio ‘Tunin’ Soffiantino” (Giancarlo Giannini) plays shooting games at a carnival, he is practicing for a special assignment – one which he will likely not survive. The simple farmer’s friend was executed by Mussolini’s police force – and now Tunin has joined the anarchist resistance, taking over his late friend’s mission: assassinate Mussolini.
At a Rome brothel, Tunin has made contact with fellow anarchist/prostitute “Salome” (Mariangela Melato) so the two can prep for the assassination – which includes meeting Mussolini’s police captain “Spatoletti” (Eros Pagni). Overwhelmed by grief, disdain for fascism, and knowledge that he’ll likely die, the last thing Tunin needs is another complication. Did I mention that Tunin falls in love with “Tripolina” (Lina Polito) – one of the brothels’ other prostitutes?
Reading the synopsis for Love and Anarchy, I asked myself what I was in for: Thriller? Drama? Romance? Comedy? The answer is all of the above! Lina tells another engaging story filled with emotion, politics and twists.
Giannini’s Tunin seldom speaks through the first half. Instead, Giannini emotes with his eyes. He appears disheveled and overwhelmed. Tunin is the ultimate antihero. While he believes in his mission (his friend’s murder convinced him to join the resistance), Giannini does a masterful job showing the simmering tension (telling us that Tunin is bound to have a breakdown at some point).
Lina doesn’t limit depth to the lead. Mariangela Melato’s Salome explains — in a heartfelt scene — her motivation to fight against Mussolini. She is a strong woman with amusing scenes of banter with her brothel co-workers in a dysfunctional family dynamic. The dynamic Melato and Giannini share leads me to believe she may be his love interest. However, that role falls to Lina Polito as Tripolina (where she excels). The Tunin/Tripolina romance is not the usual smooth affair, but a realistic, uneasy dynamic (one that may have considerable consequences).
The remaining characters are all well-rounded. Lina frequently uses musical montages, whether it’s the tragic opening that inspires Tunin to take up his friend’s cause, or watching the prostitutes score clients. We aren’t meant to ogle these women – rather we are meant to watch how they survive.
SWEPT AWAY… BY AN UNUSUAL DESTINY IN THE BLUE SEA OF AUGUST (1974)
Swept Away… By An Unusual Destiny In The Blue Sea Of August – or Swept Away as it is commonly abbreviated – represents Lina’s take on a romantic comedy. As you may suspect by now, it’s a unique one.
Swept Away opens with socialite “Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti” (Mariangela Melato) traveling the Mediterranean Sea with friends on her yacht. An outspoken capitalist, Raffealla continuously spouts her political views, taking aim at the left. Her rants prove particularly offensive to deckhand “Gennarino” (Giancarlo Giannini) — a staunch communist. Gennario reluctantly bites his tongue as the wages are good.
One day, Raffaella has Gennarino take her out in a dinghy to catch up with the others. However, the motor fails – leaving the pair stranded. Eventually, they stumble upon an uninhabited island. Tensions rise as the pampered Raffaella expects Gennarino to continue serving her. Fed up, he refuses, and the two are quickly at each other’s throats. The tables turn, and an unequipped Rafaella must rely on Gennarino for food and shelter. Gennarino demands she serves him with various tasks, insulting and threatening her when she refuses. Amidst this hostility, the two castaways begin a passionate love affair.
While the premise sounds simple, Lina’s darkly comedic fable is anything but that. Giancarlo and Mariangela (paired by Lina once again) are wonderful to watch as they take the viewer on a journey of raw human emotion and passion. In a testament to Lina’s skills as a storyteller, I repeatedly sympathized and cringed at each character on different occasions. In most “male gaze” films, Rafaella would be depicted problematically, with the filmmaker’s sympathies tilted towards Gennarino.
But while Rafaella is an insufferable snob, once the tables turn on the island, Gennarino’s behavior becomes a different kind of despicable. Watching the character behave vengefully with misogyny once he gains the upper hand is uncomfortable. I applaud Wertmuller’s willingness to depict this blatantly; I doubt very much if a male filmmaker would have done so.
Ennio Guarnieri’s gorgeous cinematography boosts the dreamlike narrative, casting an aura-like glow around the beautiful Mediterranean locations. Piero Piccioni’s smooth, mellow jazz score is immersive. With Swept Away, Wertmuller has turned yet another genre on its head with themes of human emotion and politics from a uniquely female perspective.
MY BOTTOM LINE?
Lina Wertmuller was an incredible female storyteller who managed to reach the world. She will entertain you, make you think, laugh, and cry. While many tell us the stories we want to hear, Lina Wertmuller told us some stories that we need to hear.
© Jarrod Emerson (2/8/22) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Here is the link to the Wikipedia page for the 49th annual Academy Awards ceremony (held in Los Angeles on March 28, 1977). Seven Beauties was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Lina Wertmüller was nominated in the Best Director category and the Best Original Screenplay category. Giancarlo Giannini was nominated in the Best Actor category (for his portrayal of Pasqualino).
Here is the link to the Wikipedia page for Seven Beauties for more production information, etc.
QUESTION: If Seven Beauties is always described as a film from 1975, then why was it an Oscar candidate in 1977? ANSWER: At that time, in order to qualify, all candidates had to have release dates in the USA (minimally LA & NYC) prior to December 31st. So, although Seven Beauties was released in Italy on 12/20/75, it wasn’t released in the USA until 1/21/76. It only became an international sensation after garnering four Oscar nominations in 1977. (Click here for the IMDb release schedule.)
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Publicity posters downloaded from Google.