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Italian Director Lina Wertmüller Reflects on Her Early Career

In the 1970s, Lina Wertmüller burst on the international scene with a string of groundbreaking movies combining satire, sociopolitical commentary, and outrageous sex. New York City’s venerable arthouse Quad Cinema is marking its reopening this month with a retrospective of the Italian director’s films, including “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972), “Love & Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974), and “Seven Beauties” (1975), a tragicomedy starring Giancarlo Giannini that made Wertmüller the first woman nominated for a best director Oscar. Her first mention in Variety came in a Jan. 13, 1965, review of “Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca,” an eight-episode musical TV series about a mischievous street kid, which the reviewer described as “clever and intelligent.” Aside from directing, she wrote 35 songs for the miniseries with composer Nino Rota. Aside from writing and directing for film and TV, the 88-year-old Wertmüller has directed operas and composed numerous Italian pop songs.

“Gian Burrasca” was a drastic departure from “I basilischi.” Why is that?

I’ve made almost 40 movies of many different genres. I’ve been drawn to each one for different reasons. “Gian Burrasca” was my mother’s favorite book. After “I basilischi,” which launched from the Locarno Film Festival, I was concerned that I would be perceived as a director who was too socially conscious; so to lighten things up I decided to do something completely different. Really, there are two strands — two souls — which coexist in my work: the lighthearted one associated with musical comedies and the more socially conscious one. They are both deeply part of my nature.

Many people don’t realize that you’ve written hit pop songs. How did you work with the great Nino Rota?

Nino was a friend. He would come over to my mother’s for lunch, after which he usually fell asleep. We used to say that under his coat, Nino had angel’s wings; he was a very sweet man! It took us a couple of weeks at the piano to write those songs. I wrote the words and he composed the music.

What was it like to be the assistant director on “8½”?

Working with Federico Fellini was a great adventure. But now it’s all a bit of a blur. He was such an extraordinary human being that he’s hard to describe. I met him thanks to my friends Flora and Marcello Mastroianni. I was very lucky to be chosen. There was a long line of aspiring assistant directors who would have killed to be with him and see him work. Actually, I was a lousy AD, but I was forgiven because I was “simpatica.”

How did you become friends with Flora Clarabella, who was Mastroianni’s wife?

We were at school together. I got kicked out of 11 schools; she was in one of those schools.

Do you remember the Oscar ceremony?

I never gave prizes that much importance. I’ve been pleased to get them, and they are useful. But they aren’t that big a deal. What I really cared about was having fun and being entertaining, which does not mean I didn’t work very hard. What I remember about the Oscar ceremony is that they had given me a really good seat but I didn’t want to sit there because I didn’t have any friends next to me. So I moved to another seat near a friend, and I gave that seat to Flora. When they announced who the nominees were, the TV cameras zoomed on Flora and they said she was me.

U.S. critics really loved you — perhaps more than Italian ones.

Especially John Simon, who wrote for New York magazine, and was very feared. One day after seeing “Seven Beauties,” he told his editor “I’ve seen the work of a genius!” and the editor paid his trip to Italy to meet me. So he came. 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.

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