Laughter in the Dark: The Black Comedy of Lina Wetmüller (Preview)
by Darragh O’Donoghue
Some way through Seven Beauties (1975), Lina Wertmüller’s most celebrated film, a petty Neapolitan crook conscripted into the Italian army during WWII escapes from a bombed train, and flees through forest and countryside in the middle of nowhere. He stumbles onto a secluded cottage, where a scantily clad Fräulein sings Wagner at the piano, and an old woman sits in an abundantly stocked larder. As the starving Pasqualino Settebellezze (his nickname translates as “Seven Beauties”) helps himself to provisions, he explains his actions to his reluctant hostess:
I’m an Italian soldier. Understand? No? That’s okay, German lady…Italian soldier, Naples. Sunshine, blue water, mandolins. Understand? A pizza pie with tomatoes on top, or macaroni.
Pasqualino uses the language of cliché and stereotype to communicate the genuine truth of his situation to someone from a different nation and culture. It is a moment of self-reflexivity in the supremely self-reflexive cinema of Lina Wertmüller. She spent her entire career explaining her country to outsiders. The outsider who stopped to listen the longest was the United States. In the mid-1970s, America took Wertmüller to its bosom. Her films played to packed houses in New York; in Valerio Ruiz’s documentary Behind the White Glasses (2015), Giancarlo Giannini recalls walking through Times Square with Wertmüller as four of her films played simultaneously in different theaters. The celebrated movie on which she worked as Federico Fellini’s assistant director was reportedly rereleased as “Lina Wertmüller’s 8½.” Cineaste published an unprecedented three articles on Wertmüller in 1976 alone, including the delightfully titled “How Left Is Lina?” (a reminder of the vanished idealism and the high stakes of film criticism at the time). Seven Beauties was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Director (Wertmüller was the first woman nominated for the latter award). Warner Bros. contracted her to make four English-language films. Ernest Ferlita and John R. May’s monograph The Parables of Lina Wertmüller was published in 1977, as was an edition of her screenplays introduced by her most famous (or infamous) supporter, John Simon, the ruthless and feared theater and film critic.
Fragments of this hyperbolic adulation are remembered in the publicity for the Blu-rays of several Wertmüller films recently issued by Kino Lorber—“One of the major film talents of our day,” “A giant talent,” “The most important director since Ingmar Bergman!” The problem is that the quotes all derive from this mid-1970s moment. The essays and interviews that supplement the discs are mostly by people who saw the films in this period. There is no sense of renewal, of Wertmüller’s work being rediscovered or her status confirmed by later generations of filmmakers, viewers, critics, or historians. Only one English-language monograph has been published in the last forty years, compared to the countless volumes that continue to be written about Rossellini, Fellini, or Pasolini (although in fairness, most filmmakers of Wertmüller’s generation have been eclipsed by their illustrious predecessors—there aren’t that many books on Francesco Rosi, Dino Risi, or Ettore Scola, either). I don’t think that Cineaste, or any other major film periodical, has published three features in total on Wertmüller since her heyday. The main histories of Italian cinema tend to marginalize or disparage her work, or ignore it altogether. There is clearly still a market for this work, as Kino has released editions of the most famous films—The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, Swept Away, and Seven Beauties—in various home entertainment formats since the 1980s. But Wertmüller’s traction in the wider film culture has severely declined.
Her spectacular U.S. success baffled Wertmüller’s compatriots. Virtually every article on Wertmüller—including this one!—notes the disparity between this success and her critical invisibility in Italy. The latter “fact” must be taken with a pinch of salt; Wertmüller managed to finance over thirty films in Italy—a far higher total than most of her contemporaries—as well as publishing widely and releasing records (she is known locally as a singer and songwriter, and co-wrote many songs with the film composer Nino Rota). Her background is in Italian theater, and from the 1980s she directed several high-profile plays and operas (some of this activity is recorded in Behind the White Glasses). So, Wertmüller is not “unknown” in Italy. But she is definitely not considered a major auteur in Europe—the discs I received for this assignment offered my first opportunity to see her films. To the best of my knowledge, only Swept Away has been released on tape or disc in the U.K., and her work hasn’t been broadcast on British TV in recent decades. The situation is only slightly better in France and Germany, although most of her films have been released on some format in Italy.
Local reaction to Wertmüller’s American fame was snide; she was dubbed “Santa Lina di New York.” American critics were mocked for praising aspects of Wertmüller’s cinema that were plagiarized from much better (and male) contemporaries, in particular the directors of the “commedia all’italiana” school. One critic famously wrote in a review of Swept Away: “We have to grant one merit to Lina Wertmüller: she is consistent. Her films get worse and worse, there is a gradual progression from film to film. It would be admirable if it were not so deplorable.” This accusation of technical and artistic incompetence—clearly informed by the misogyny of an overwhelmingly masculine film culture—contrasts with the extravagant claims being made for Wertmüller across the Atlantic at the same time. How could Wertmüller be both inept and “a master of filmmaking” (Roger Ebert)? Was the local critique an example of what the Irish call “begrudgery’”—the mean-spirited attack on fellow nationals who make their mark abroad? Or was the initial U.S. acclaim a strange demographic blip? The subsequent critical silence suggests an attempt to cover up a terrible mistake, colluded in by critics after the flop of Wertmüller’s first American film, A Night Full of Rain (1978). Just as Pauline Kael’s critical standing was diminished by her grandiose praise of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), so zealous Wertmüller admirers such as Simon, Vincent Canby, or Henry Miller have had little lasting influence on film history or criticism; their advocacy has counted for little in the long run. It is notable that the more historically influential American critics and scholars of the period—such as Andrew Sarris, Dave Kehr, Joseph McBride, or Jonathan Rosenbaum—had little good to say about Wertmüller’s work…
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