In the still American-led realm of the Academy Awards, it’s unusual for the helmer of a film not in the English language to score a Best Director nomination. It’s far rarer still, meanwhile, for a woman to be nominated in the category at all: just five have done so in 91 years. Only one director, however, has broken both those barriers: in 1977, Italy’s Lina Wertmuller made history as Oscar’s first distaff Best Director nominee, for her darkly comic, baroquely nightmarish Holocaust survival odyssey “Seven Beauties.”
She lost, of course, though the nomination was really the remarkable feat: not just because it came at the expense of Hollywood names like Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby, but because “Seven Beauties” was — and remains — such an abrasive, discomfiting vision, a million miles removed from the epic, ennobling Second World War stories that pundits like to think of as awards bait. Its ostensible hero, so brilliantly played by the likewise Oscar-tapped Giancarlo Giannini, is an idiot, a misogynist, not above rash violence or sexual manipulation to get himself ahead. Wertmuller’s grotesque story of his debasement in a Nazi concentration camp is a powerful reminder to storytellers that victims needn’t be sympathetically presented to remain essentially sympathetic.
“Seven Beauties” prompted controversy and debate upon release — enough so that, despite its success in the nominations, it lost the foreign-language Oscar to the lower-profile, less incendiary “Black and White in Color.” Unlike many a cinematic lightning-rod of its era, you can imagine Wertmuller’s film, with its complex politics of representation, being just as contentious and divisive today, if not more so.
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The subject of a Lumiére Festival retrospective, Wertmuller never set out to make crowdpleasers: her reputation as a flinty, challenging provocateur was well established by the time “Seven Beauties” made its unlikely mainstream breakthrough. She likes to brag that she was a born rebel, expelled from over a dozen Catholic schools as a child, formatively influenced in equal measure by comic books and Soviet theater. She began in the stage realm, as an avant-garde puppeteer, before entering film via a crucial mentorship with Federico Fellini, on whose “8½” she worked as assistant director in 1963. That same year, she made her own directorial debut with the stark, neorealism-influenced drama “The Basilisks,” winning Best Director at Locarno.
Lighter comedies, musicals and even a spaghetti western — the only female-directed entry in the genre — followed, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that Wertmuller began to garner international attention. 1972’s “The Seduction of Mimi,” which deftly satirised the Italian male libido, premiered in competition at Cannes; she returned to the Croisette the following year with “Love and Anarchy,” about a Mussolini-loathing anarchist sheltering in a brothel.
Wertmuller had already asserted her interest in the conflicted pride and occasional hypocrisy of the Italian patriarchy by the time she made her 1975 masterpiece “Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August” — eccentrically long titles becoming one of her creative signatures — which used the erotically charged power struggle between a bourgeois capitalist and a lowly yachtsman marooned on a desert island to articulate a history of Italian class injustice. It was disastrously remade in 2002 by Guy Ritchie and Madonna, whose every miscalculation underlined the expertise of Wertmuller’s high-wire balance between intellectual and sensualist cinema.
Wertmuller remained prolific through the 1980s and 1990s, though the films never made an equivalent global impact to those of her 1970s peak: the asphalt-gritty crime drama “Camorra (A Story of Streets, Women and Crime),” comparative straightforward by her standards, made some ripples on the festival circuit, but the likes of 1986’s “Summer Night, with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil” and her (to date) final film, 2004’s “Too Much Romance… It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers” are remembered principally for the quintessential quirkiness of their titles.