When she received an Honorary Academy Award in 2019, trailblazing Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller added another historic notch in her career belt. The first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing in 1977, she was mentored during the golden age of Italian cinema by Federico Fellini and broke through to international audiences and critical acclaim with a string of successful films throughout the 1970s. Among her two dozen films (many sporting some of the longest titles in movie history), here are a few of the highlights through which we can remember a woman who left a legacy like no other.
Though you may have a hard time tracking down a copy to watch, this colorful and vibrant teen musical is a splashy vehicle for singing star Rita Pavone that shows off Wertmüller’s already keen eye for pop art and surprising camera framing. It also marked her first collaboration with actor Giancarlo Giannini, who would become her most famous acting muse over the years.
Wertmüller’s first major international hit was this political satire about metalworker Mimi (Giannini) who finds his code of honor put to the test by the Mafia, communist laborers and an extramarital affair that could put his life in jeopardy. A scathing and hilarious dark comedy as well as a collaboration with the director’s other most famous star, Mariangela Melato, it paints an unforgettable portrait of Italy’s political and social class divide as well as its deeply troubling treatment of women.
Wertmüller gets political again with Giannini and Melato teaming up for the story of a man who takes up his dead friend’s anarchist cause by plotting to assassinate Benito Mussolini at the start of World War II. A major success at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was instrumental in getting its director and stars even more prominent placement on the international stage.
Nothing less than modern Italian culture at large is the target for this picaresque look at a group of Milanese laborers who decide to form a commune, which doesn’t turn out to be quite the idealistic lifestyle they had in mind. The film is also distinguished by a famously funky score by her composer on three films, Piero Piccioni.
Wertmüller’s biggest and most controversial global success presents a battle of the sexes that still divides viewers today. When haughty upper class Melato and crewman Giannini get stranded on an island, their class and gender differences suddenly take on entirely different meanings as their emotions and preconceptions turn upside down. Giannini’s son, Adriano, would go on to play the same role as his father in Guy Ritchie’s 2002 remake.
This outrageous comedy is the one that netted Wertmüller her historic Oscar nomination (one of four the film received), and with good reason. Giannini excels here as Pasqualino, a man so intent on supporting his seven sisters that he goes to truly extreme and shocking ends that land him in a German concentration camp during World War II.
Wertmüller goes deadly serious in this look at small-town justice and retribution. Sophia Loren stars as Titina, a woman so outraged by the death of her husband at the hands of the most powerful local fascist that she embarks on a campaign that puts her between Giannini and Marcello Mastroianni in a triangle of a very different kind.
A return to the battle of the sexes is in store here with Melato in charge as Fulvia, an insanely wealthy woman who decides her secluded lair is the perfect place in which to hold mobster Beppe (Michele Placido) captive to her whims. Visually gorgeous and often very funny, the film also flips the cinematic gaze onto its male character with gleefully subversive results.
Now we shift gears again with this opulent historical romp, inspired by the life of King Ferdinando I of Naples. From his deathbed, the ruler reflects on the love of his life and how it all went sideways thanks to the quirks of history and his own personal flaws that etched a love story for the history books.