“Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.” “Summer Night with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil.” “The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain.” The titles of a fistful of eighty-eight-year-old writer-director Lina Wertmüller’s films have an insistent, sensual poetry. The title of her last realized feature, 2004’s “Too Much Romance… It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers” is at least worth a crooked smile. In the United States, “Swept Away” (1976) and “Seven Beauties” (1977) were art-house sensations in the 1970s, with their volatile mix of Italian leftist politics and pitched carnal conflict. (Her early work included an assistant director’s gig on Fellini’s “8 1/2.”) Of “Swept Away,” her castaway romance between a crude sailor (Giancarlo Giannini) and a spoiled wife of a wealthy man, a political parable dense with sadomasochistic ardor and no small amount of farce, Roger Ebert wrote that the material resisted the Italian filmmaker’s “determined attempts to make it a fable about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and persists in being about a man and a woman. On that level, it’s a great success, even while it’s causing all sorts of mischief otherwise.”
During their brief vogue for her emphatically mixed messages, the rebarbative critic John Simon (vehemently judgmental of the looks of actresses), carried the most fire for Wertmüller, asserting at a Chicago International Film Festival event in 1994, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, that “Seven Beauties,” “Swept Away,” “The Seduction of Mimi” and “Love and Anarchy” comprised more masterpieces than had been made by any Italian director. Later, as Rosenbaum points out, Simon went to great pains to varnish his other esteemed female director, Leni Riefenstahl. (As for Wertmüller, she said of Simon this April, “I didn’t realize how important he was, and to tell the truth I didn’t really give a rat’s ass. But he’s a very sweet man.”) At the 1977 Oscars, Wertmüller was nominated for best original screenplay as well as the first of three women nominated for best director (Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow are the other three.) In a twenty-first century light, will her alternately comic and brutal films seem like even cruder juggernauts or as fierce political fantasias, skeptical of male power and of capital? I look forward to the essays, exploring the balance of crudity and craft in her jostling work almost more than re-seeing the restored filmography on screen. (Ray Pride)
“Eight Films By Lina Wertmüller” play in May at Siskel.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.