I last saw Lina Wertmüller on the stage of the Buñuel auditorium at the Cannes film festival in 2019, surrounded by cheering fans: a tiny, fiercely alert and beaming figure in her early 90s. She was there because Pasqualino Settebellezze, or Seven Beauties (1975), her strange, serio-comic masterpiece was being shown; this famously made her the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award as best director.
Seven Beauties is an absurdist anti-war satire, starring her favourite leading man Giancarlo Giannini – a roguishly handsome but unsettling presence who was to her movies, perhaps, what Marcello Mastroianni was to Federico Fellini, and Wertmüller started out as assistant to Fellini. Fellini was her mentor and friend, and she, in turn, was his lifelong passionate admirer as a creative life force – and yet it was arguably Wertmüller who had more mordant and subversive things to say about the postwar Italian soul.
Seven Beauties, for which she wrote the original screenplay, is something to be compared to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Giannini plays Pasqualino Frafuso, a fool – though not an innocent or a holy one – who is to reveal himself as an egotist, a coward and even a rapist as he careens across the strife-torn landscape of the second world war, motivated by a pompous macho concern for protecting the supposed honour of his seven sisters, who are far from bellezze in any sense. Pasqualino gets sent to an insane asylum for killing the pimp with whom one sister has taken up (and dismembering the body and despatching the portions all over Italy in suitcases) but is finally released to serve in the army – in which capacity he is sent to a Nazi concentration camp where he grotesquely attempts to seduce the female commandant and is made to undergo horrifying ordeals which resemble a bad-taste horror panto version of Sophie’s Choice. When he finally returns home to Naples, he naturally finds that all seven of his sisters and his mother have succumbed to exactly that dishonour which horrified him in the first place.
It is a cliche to talk about classic movies (or books or TV shows) that couldn’t get made now, but for Seven Beauties there is no trigger warning big enough. Wertmüller displays a colossal daring in her film’s unsentimentality, its seediness, its cynicism, its calculated shock and offence, its incorrectness and black-comic tonal wrongness. It sprang from the same mood as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) or Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973). There is a streak of vinegary nastiness in the film, to go with its mad picaresque energy, which speaks satirically to the nausea of Italian fascism.
Before that, Wertmüller had started out with her indulgent but engaging dark comedy The Lizards (1963), which had as its premise a Fellini-esque bunch of guys yearning to escape their home town in the south of Italy, beautifully written and performed. The Seduction of Mimi (1972) – original title: Mimi the Metalworker Honourably Wounded – set the picaresque and sexual tone that was to be developed in Seven Beauties; the grisly trope of sexual assault and the spectacle of giggling homophobia. Giancarlo Giannini is Mimi, a worker fired for his supposed communist sympathies, whose roving eye leads him to be involved in mob violence and official corruption.
Love and Anarchy (1973) also mixed political satire with sex to create chaos: Giannini is an anarchist plotting to murder Mussolini before the second world war. Swept Away (1974) was a broad comedy-satire-drama about a wealthy woman stranded on a desert island with one of her lost boat’s crew, played as ever by Giannini; the clash of their respective capitalist and communist beliefs becomes a sexual spark. (This was heart-sinkingly remade in 2002 by Guy Ritchie, starring Madonna and Adriano Giannini – son of Giancarlo.)
By the time Wertmüller made The Blue-Collar Worker and the Hairdresser in a Whirl of Sex and Politics in 1996, her ideas and style were verging on self-parody. But her dynamism and her unflagging interest in the absurdity of sex and male sexuality – and her fierce political scepticism – made her a thrilling live-wire in European cinema.