(Peter Bradshaw’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/9; Photo: Mordant and subversive … Lina Wertmüller. Photograph: Camilla Morandi/AGF/REX/Shutterstock.)

Lina Wertmüller dies aged 93

The director was a film-maker with mordant and subversive things to say about the postwar Italian soul, particularly in Seven Beauties

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.

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