In the 1970s, the Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller was everywhere. Her films, especially popular on the American arthouse scene, broke box office records for international features. Her name alone, dominating posters and theater marquees, sold tickets. She was impersonated twice by Laraine Newman on Saturday Night Live, famous white glasses and all. And of course, she is best remembered as the first woman to receive a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards—she, along with fellow nominees Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, and Alan J. Pakula, lost in 1976 to ROCKY director John G. Avildsen. For a decade, if you were an American even vaguely interested in movies, you could not escape Wertmüller. In their obituary for Wertmüller, The Guardian muses:
“Using bold colours and alienating camera angles, and dealing with subjects such as political injustice, gender disparities, sexual violence and eroticism, her films […] seemed to chime with the sense of rebellion in the air in the US at the time.” (source)
Growing up, Wertmüller was expelled from school at least a dozen times. She worked a variety of jobs in puppet theater and television before she was introduced to Federico Fellini. After cutting her teeth as Fellini’s assistant on the set of 8 ½ and directing films throughout the 1960s, Wertmüller’s arthouse dominance began with her 1972 film—and breakthrough hit—THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Her second collaboration with Giancarlo Giannini, who plays the eponymous Mimi with Chaplinesque nuance, it's Wertmüller’s most obvious comedy, although humor can be found in each of her films.
In the film, Mimi is a man stuck between a rock and a hard place… or rather, between the Mafia, the metalworker’s union, and the Communist party, as well as his lover, his wife, his wife’s lover, and his wife’s lover’s wife. (Mimi’s lover is played by Mariangela Melato and his wife’s lover’s wife is played by Elena Fiore—both starred in several of Wertmüller’s films.) Never short on satire, everything is political in this film, even underwear. Or, as Slant Magazine puts it: “THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI is socio-political discourse, Italian style: Sex speaks louder than words on any given subject.”
At its heart, THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI is really a study of the human spirit, of how low a person can—and will—go to live without being under the thumb of another, whether that happens to be the Mafia or your wife. The film’s tagline, after all, was: “He's been a husband, a lover, a cuckold and a Communist. Now he just wants to be free.” In her 1974 New York Times film review, Nora Sayre writes:
“Miss Wertmüller has created a sympathetic character who's also capable of barbarity, a likable person who can (and does) behave like a monster. It's her talent to be honest about cruelty; she also specializes in vulnerable people.” (source)
Cruelty—both inflicted on and by Mimi—is integral to the film. Alex Davidson, Cinema Curator for The Barbican, writes: “Two scenes – one of domestic violence, one of a hair-raising seduction – throw political correctness out the window, but […] the film’s critique of inadequate men is as sharp and relevant as ever.” (source) Wertmüller admits that the male caricatures recurrent in her filmography, while based on reality, are of course exaggerated: “It’s the grotesque style that I invented for my films that underscores the traits of these characters.” (source)
THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI is a great introduction to Wertmüller's filmography: It strikes a balance between humor and grim satire, which she continued with later work, and embodies many themes that she pursued with greater depth in films like LOVE & ANARCHY, SWEPT AWAY, and SEVEN BEAUTIES. Wertmüller explained:
“Really, there are two strands — two souls — which co-exist in my work: the lighthearted one associated with musical comedies and the more socially conscious one. They are both deeply part of my nature.” (source)
While Wertmüller’s Best Director nomination was groundbreaking (and sadly still is, as she is one of just seven women to ever be nominated for the award), it should not be the sole thing remembered about her. The cultural influence she had on world cinema in the 1970s was not a blip—she made innovative, weird movies that explored political issues with humor while maintaining a strong aesthetic vision. The Barbican said it best: “[Wertmüller’s] devastating, unflinching critique of fascist Italy, her embrace of ribald humor, and her dissections of entitled masculinity mark her as a unique and brave filmmaker.”
Rest in love and anarchy, Lina (1928-2021)—cinema is all the better because of your work.
Other titles for your consideration, all available to rent at Movie Madness:
- Wertmüller’s near complete filmography can be found in Movie Madness’s Italian section. Notable highlights include: LOVE & ANARCHY, SWEPT AWAY, and SEVEN BEAUTIES. Her English-language debut, A NIGHT FULL OF RAIN starring Candice Bergen, caused Warner Bros to rescind her four-picture deal—worth a watch just for that. Her 1989 film AS LONG AS IT’S LOVE stars Rutger Hauer, Nastassja Kinski, Peter O’Toole, and Faye Dunaway, which is a cast you probably didn’t know you needed.
- To learn more about Wertmüller, check out BEHIND THE WHITE GLASSES, a documentary by Valerio Ruiz.
- Guy Ritchie remade SWEPT AWAY, which, while critically panned, does star Madonna.
- For Laraine Newman’s Wertmüller impression, see Saturday Night Live, Season 1 Episode 21 and Season 2 Episode 18.
Walk of Fame Honoree Lina Wertmüller Is Having a Ball
Movie Poster of the Week: Lina Wertmüller in One Sheets and Quattro Foglis
Lina Wertmüller obituary (The Guardian)
Lina Wertmüller, Torrent of Paradox
Love and Anarchy: The Films of Lina Wertmüller
Screen: Politics and Sex
SNL Archives: Impressions
Review: Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi
Image credit: Screen shot from Paul Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN