Italy’s provocative filmmaker Lina Wertmueller, whose potent mix of sex and politics in “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties” made her the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for directing and a cult figure on the New York film scene, has died, the Culture Ministry said. She was 93.
Wertmueller, who won a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2019, died overnight in Rome surrounded by her family, the LaPresse news agency reported, quoting her relatives.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini paid tribute to Wertmueller Thursday, saying her “class and unmistakable style” had left its mark on Italian and world cinema. “Grazie Lina,” he said in a statement.
Political, controversial and often erotic, her films were filled with social commentary and satirical anti-establishment messages. Wertmueller, who also wrote the scripts for her films, described them as Marxist comedies.
“I refuse to make films without social themes,” said the woman once dubbed “five feet of film controversy.”
Five feet tall with dramatic eye makeup, colorful hair and rings on all her fingers, Wertmueller’s extravagant appearance was an integral part of her persona. In an interview with The Associated Press, she admitted that she owned hundreds of her trademark white-rimmed glasses.
She was born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmueller von Elgg Spanol von Braueichjob in Rome to an aristocratic Swiss family. Apparently rejecting her parents’ wishes to study law, Wertmueller instead went to drama school where she acted, wrote and directed plays. After graduating from Rome’s Theatre Academy, she toured Europe with Maria Signorelli’s puppet troupe.
In 1963, Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, the husband of a schoolfriend, introduced Wertmueller to Federico Fellini, who asked her to be his assistant on “8½.” Wertmueller later said Fellini proved to be her greatest influence.
“It’s illuminating to be close to him, because you are close to a character who’s so profoundly nonconformist, who runs with himself like a child with a kite,” she said.
That same year, with Fellini’s encouragement, Wertmueller went to Sicily to make “The Lizards,” her first feature film. It was favorably received but the director herself criticized it as being “too rarefied,” too difficult for people to understand. She wanted to make films for the masses.
Wertmueller’s series of hits began with the “Seduction of Mimi” (1972), whose title was abbreviated from “Mimi the Metal Worker Wounded in his Honor” — Wertmueller told the AP that long titles amused her. The New Yorker called it “a wonderfully funny sexual farce” and Time magazine named it one of the year’s 10 best films. Other box-office success included “Love and Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974) and “Seven Beauties” (1976), which earned her one Oscar nomination for directing, one for best original screenplay and another for her leading man, Giancarlo Giannini.
She didn’t win then, but the Academy acknowledged the milestone in awarding her a lifetime achievement more than four decades later, in 2019.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave “Swept Away” his top rating, saying despite the movie’s clash between a wealthy capitalist and her Marxist employee it “persists in being about a man and a woman.” Other critics were uncomfortable with its violence against women, with Anthony Kaufman calling it “possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” The film won the 1975 National Board of Review award for top foreign film.
The lure of sex was a constant theme. In the “Seduction of Mimi,” a man is attracted to Communism partly because it allows him to have an affair with a sexy communist. In “Seven Beauties,” Pasqualino, played by Giannini — for years Wertmueller’s favorite leading man — decides to survive a concentration camp at all cost, even by making love to the fat, brutal Nazi woman in charge.
Yet with 1977’s “A Night Full of Rain,” Wertmueller’s first film in English, U.S. critics were no longer so enthusiastic.
Wertmueller loved to bring together apparently contradictory forces. Her 1992 movie “Ciao, Professore!” tells the story of Neapolitan schoolchildren forced to deliver drugs and kill, but she called the film “an act of love for the south and the children.”
“I see the possibility for humor in the most serious things,” she said.
Full of energy, Wertmueller had the reputation on set of dominating actors and changing scenes at the spur of the moment.
“She’s a tempest,” Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director, once said.
But Giannini said the director was always open to suggestions.
“Lina asks everyone for advice, camera operators and actors alike. She believes that a film is the product of collaboration,” he said.
Wertmueller was also a member of the Venice Film Festival jury in 1988 and served as the director of Italy’s film acting school.
She worked closely with her set designer husband, Enrico Job, for all her successful pictures, calling him “my best critic.” He died in 2008.
Wertmueller is survived by their daughter, Maria Zulima Job.
Rome’s city hall announced it would host a wake on Friday in one of its main reception halls.