I studied film theory in college and graduate school. I now write and direct movies. I even like to think that I know a lot about, specifically, European cinema from the '70s. But I had never heard of the prolific First Lady of Italian cinema, the Academy Award–nominated icon Lina Wertmüller, until I was asked to interview her for this wonderful publication. As happens often, it became clear that I have a lot of learning left to do. Lina's movies Seven Beauties and Swept Away were met with near-universal acclaim, and she was a film-society doyenne back in the disco era. Parties thrown in Lina's honor got written up in the Washington Post and were paparazzi events where Barbara Walters stood a "canapé tray away" from Woody Allen.
So I called up my local movie-rental store (sadly, perhaps the last one in all of LA), Vidéothèque, and asked if they had any of Lina's films. They did. Soon I was posted up in front of the TV, diving headfirst into what can only be described as a glorious marathon movie session the likes of which I hadn't done in years.
I started with what would end up being my favorite of her films, Swept Away, about a rich aristocratic woman who becomes stranded on an island with a working-class deckhand from her yacht. The master became the slave. The slave became the master. Sex and power, class relations, an exploration into the feminine and masculine … I was blown away. In Seven Beauties, for which she was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, Wertmüller again flips convention — instead of a tale of the horrors of concentration camps, her protagonist is a violent gangster who deserts the complicit Italian army, gets caught, is thrown into a concentration camp, and all in all is a pretty terrible dude. And yet, the film is about so much more — it's about survival, and of course it is a statement on Italy's complicated social and political history. In all of her work, Lina creates portraits of both men and women who are complicated, who make wrong decisions, who are annoying, who are human.
My filmmaker friends and I talk often about how rare it is that we see a film that just wows us these days, and when you've watched a lot of movies, these gems become rarer and rarer. But Lina's body of work shines brightly, putting her rightfully among the heavy hitters of 20th-century cinema. The newly reopened Quad Cinema in New York is hosting a retrospective of Lina's films, so you can catch up with her brilliance just like I did.
Hannah Fidell: I'm always interested in the writing process — what's your writing routine like? Or even an average day for you these days?
Lina Wertmüller: I think writing needs some strict rules, because it's a job, first of all. I always wake up early in the morning to start to write in the first hours of the day, when you are not distracted by calls and commitments. I've always worked that way. I used to sleep three or four hours per night, so I had a lot of time to write, to read, and to watch films. Now I'm used to sleeping more, but I haven't lost that routine.
HF: What I love about your films is that you don't judge your characters — they are who they are, and they are far from perfect human beings. I've tried to do this myself, and I feel as though I've been taken to task for portraying female characters negatively, that as a female director I MUST always portray women in a positive way.