Lina Wertmüller’s WWII-set Seven Beauties (1975) opens with one of cinema’s boldest juxtapositions of image and sound. With the film’s first shot, we fade into a (silent) black-and-white freeze frame of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler locked in a jovial handshake.
The title then zooms out – bright red capital letters against the monochrome image. Wertmüller holds the shot for a couple of seconds before the first few lumbering notes of electric bass, drums and saxophone of Enzo Jannacci’s ‘Quelli che’ (‘Those Who’) unfreezes the two dictators. For a further four minutes, Wertmüller cuts between shots of Mussolini and Hitler and scenes of wartime destruction, all accompanied by Jannacci’s wryly ironic spoken lyrics on the soundtrack.
The picaresque tale of small-time Neapolitan hood Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) and his desperate struggle for survival in a Nazi concentration camp, Seven Beauties was Wertmüller’s most controversial and divisive work, daring as it did to approach the Holocaust through a blackly comic lens.
Despite its provocative nature, the film was nominated in various categories at the 1977 Academy Awards, including best director. Remarkably, it was the first time a woman filmmaker had been in contention for the award.
With a lawyer father descended from Swiss nobility, Wertmüller was born in Rome in 1928 and attended drama school. Upon graduating, she worked extensively for the stage in both dramatic theatre and light musical comedy, a dexterity that undoubtedly served her well upon her move into filmmaking.
In a film career spanning over four decades, Wertmüller specialised in full-blooded, razor-sharp satires that took aim at everything from gender relations to party politics. Her ripe, exuberant style led to frequent comparisons with Federico Fellini, with whom she worked as assistant in the early 1960s.
“For me, Federico was a kind of window onto a world that I didn’t know yet,” she recalls in her 2012 memoir. “Being around him was like following a good natured and affectionate sorcerer […] He was unique in being able to mix lightness, irony and charm with a tender and heart-rending humanity.”
Immediately after working on Fellini’s 8½ (1963) – and with a little help from her mentor – she was able to secure the services of cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo and key members of his crew for her low-budget debut feature I basilischi (1963).
Given that it centres on a small group of friends idling away their days in a provincial town, obvious comparisons were made between I basilischi and Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953), but, if anything, Wertmüller’s film features more unusual stylistic choices.
There’s one dizzying wide shot in particular that’s more Hitchcock than Fellini. It follows a young woman laterally from above as she walks down a deserted, sun-blasted cobbled road. As the camera pans to the right to reveal the vanishing point, a lone figure emerges from the left, accompanied by two ominous notes on the bass clarinet (the film features an early score by Ennio Morricone).
Wertmüller surprised many by following up I basilischi not with another feature but with Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca (1964), a children’s TV series for Italian state broadcaster Rai based on an early 20th-century novel by Vamba. The lead role was played by teenage pop sensation Rita Pavone, with whom Wertmüller would go on to make two film musicals. The first of these, Rita the Mosquito (1966), also marked the director’s first collaboration with Giancarlo Giannini, an actor who would become a key figure in her 1970s output.
Wertmüller and Giannini worked together on six films in six years between 1972 and 1978, pictures which cemented the director’s international reputation. Three of these – The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973) and Swept Away (1974) – paired the actor with Mariangela Melato.
Wertmüller also collaborated with Italian acting royalty Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In her 2014 autobiography, Loren writes: “I hadn’t experienced anything as intimate, as familiar on the set since my days working with Vittorio [De Sica].”
However, the most important encounter in Wertmüller’s life, both personally and professionally, was with the renowned set and costume designer Enrico Job, whom she married in 1967. With characteristic modesty, she said Job was responsible for “all the visual elements” of her work.
In 2019, Wertmüller received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, with fellow filmmakers Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion delivering personal and impassioned tributes.
“I loved how everything about her films was too much and yet utterly truthful,” says Gerwig. “Her feminism isn’t dry, it’s naughty and it’s playful.” Campion calls Seven Beauties Wertmüller’s “masterwork”, arguing that it tells “a heart-stopping truth with a character of no values, no virtues. It’s this reversal of expectations that makes [it] so surprising and so important and one of the best films of the 20th century.”