In the 1970s, Lina Wertmuller enjoyed virtually unrivaled success in America. Eight of her films were released during the decade, including the foreign-language smash “Swept Away.” She became the first woman nominated for a directing Oscar, for her 1976 film “Seven Beauties,” and finished off the period making studio- financed pictures with U.S. stars including “A Night Full of Rain” with Candice Bergen in 1978.
The American Cinematheque presents three weekends of the iconoclastic Italian filmmaker’s pics, beginning Friday with “Swept Away.” Starring Giancarlo Giannini (the actor she is most closely associated with) and Mariangela Melato, the film is a sexy political comedy about a wealthy woman and her servant shipwrecked on an island who find that survival changes their roles and relationship. The picture also cemented Wertmuller’s penchant for extremely long titles. In this case, it’s “Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.”
Wertmuller will appear during the opening weekend and introduce and discuss her films, including the latest, “The Worker and the Hairdresser.”
It’s impossible to explain why Wertmuller’s bawdy political satires struck a nerve in America while the work of fellow Italian filmmakers went unnoticed. If she has an insight on it, she’s guarding it, preferring to say that she was “born with a passion for American films” and somehow her work must reflect that ardor.
“The audience is a mystery,” she said from Rome. “Chaplin described it as a monster with no head. You just never know which way it will turn.”
Born into wealth and position, she decided not to become a lawyer like her father, opting for a life in the theater. She began as an actress, but evolved into an influential writer and director in the 1950s and took her first job in film as Fellini’s assistant on “8-1/2.”
“He (Fellini) was magical,” Wertmuller said. “He created his own world and just knew how to help you enter into it. He had such a joy for life and film.”
Her world is most vibrant when it addresses the classes and politics, particular the left. In her latest, for instance, it’s not simply good enough to be a Communist; one has to belong to the right faction. And she delights in letting the air out of people’s noble intentions. Her irony, both subtle and blatant, was perhaps never more keen than in “Love and Anarchy,” in which Giannini plays a rather simple assassin who arrives in Rome to kill Mussolini and is undone by stupidity, naivete and human frailty.
Though rather comprehensive, the program has omitted “A Joke of Destiny,” another wicked political tale in which Ugo Tognazzi portrays a politician locked inside his car. The description does not begin to do justice to the savage comedy.
Famously temperamental and equally lionized for her ability to invent on set, she said making movies is like “love or war. You will do anything to get what you need.”
Further information on the program is available by calling (213) 466-FILM.