Much of the Italian film industry's success during its most prosperous years was based upon the popularity of film comedies, the commedia all'italiana . Thesegenre films were dominated by some excellent commercial directors who acquired auteur status by virtue of their comic genius: Mario Monicelli (b. 1915), Luigi Comencini (b. 1916), Dino Risi (b. 1916), Ettore Scola (b. 1931), and Wertmüller. Furthermore, these directors enjoyed the collaboration of great scriptwriters, such as Age (Agenore Incrocci [1919–2005]), Furio Scarpelli (b. 1919), Tullio Pinelli (b. 1908), and Scola himself. These directors and scriptwriters had at their disposal a troupe of great comic actors and actresses no national cinema outside Hollywood could match: Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Ugo Tognazzi, Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti, and Stefania Sandrelli. Once denigrated by Italian leftists as merely "commercial" films without artistic pretensions, Italian comedies often contained more trenchant social criticism than the more acceptable ideologically oriented "art" films of the period. The many excellent works produced from the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s provide an accurate mirror of changing Italian customs and values. They helped to force the average Italian into a greater awareness of conflicting values, by attacking age-old prejudices and questioning the inept rule of governing elites and institutions. They often embodied a black, grotesque vision of contemporary Italian society, and the laughter in these works was bittersweet.
The film that best reflected the combination of comedy and social criticism typical of the commedia all'italiana was Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961). Made before Italian law admitted legal divorce, Germi's satire of Sicilian sexual mores chronicled the comic attempts of a Sicilian nobleman to force his hated wife into adultery, so that he can murder her, receive a light sentence for a crime of honor (hence the film's title), and marry his mistress. Utilizing a complex narrative juxta-posing the director's critical view of this affair with the Sicilian's biased justification of his misdeeds, Germi recreated the oppressive atmosphere of Sicilian provincial life that forces men and woman to commit violent crimes in order to obtain sexual fulfillment. Another excellent example of commedia all'italiana was Bread and Chocolate (1973) by Franco Brusati (1922–1993), a grotesque indictment of the conditions experienced by Italian "guest workers" in Switzerland. Perhaps the most interesting comic director was Ettore Scola, who began working in the cinema as a scriptwriter on dozens of comic films produced in the 1950s and the early 1960s. In We All Loved Each Other Very Much (1974), Dirty, Mean and Nasty (1976), and The Terrace (1980), Scola employed a
After an early career as an actress and puppeteer, Wertmüller encountered Federico Fellini and worked as his unaccredited assistant on 8½ . Immediately afterward, she directed her first feature film, I Basilischi ( The Lizards , 1963), a work that recalls Fellini's I Vitelloni ( The Young and the Passionate , 1953) in its focus upon provincial slackers. After making several comedies under the name George H. Brown featuring singer Rita Pavone and actor Giancarlo Giannini— Rita la zanzara ( Rita the Mosquito , 1966) and Non stuzzicate la zanzara ( Don't Sting the Mosquito , 1967) that met with some success at the box office—Wertmüller made the spaghetti western, Il Mio corpo per un poker ( The Belle Starr Story , 1967).
Her international renown came about because of five incredibly popular political comedies that introduced the pairing of Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore ( The Seduction of Mimi , 1972), a farce about sex and politics, made the two performers famous, and the subsequent Film d'amore e d'anarchia ( Love and Anarchy , 1973) was a box-office sensation. Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto ( Swept Away , 1975) aroused the ire of many feminists. This comedy of a rich woman abandoned on a deserted island with a member of the Italian proletariat and their subsequent love affair still arouses passions. A comparison of Wertmüller's Swept Away with the embarrassing 2002 remake underscores the quality of Wertmüller's early comic films. Wertmüller's cinematic style was influenced as much by popular Italian culture as by the cinema: a love for puppetry and the commedia dell'arte tradition informs her films, most of which employ stereotypical comic figures to criticize society.
Wertmüller's masterpiece, Pasqualino Settebellezze ( Seven Beauties , 1976), which combined political comedy with a dark visionof the Holocaust, received the first Academy nomination for Best Director bestowed on a woman.
Following the unparalleled critical and commercial success of this film, Wertmüller signed a contract to direct English-language films, but her international popularity fell off dramatically with the appearance of La Fine del mondo nel nostro solito letto in una notte pienad pioggia ( A Night Full of Rain , 1979). Subsequent Italian-language films— Fatto di sangue fra due uomini per causa di una vedova ( Blood Feud , 1978), Scherzo del destino in agguato dietro l'angolo come un brigante da strada ( A Joke of Destiny , 1983), Io speriamo che me la cavo ( Ciao, Professore! , 1993), and Metalmeccanico e parrucchiera in un turbine di sesso e di politica ( The Worker and the Hairdresser , 1996)—demonstrated her combination of politics and humor but never matched the popular and critical success of her 1970s films. Besides work in the cinema, Wertmüller has directed operas and made films for Italian television. Since 1988, she has served as an administrator at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the film school in Rome.
Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore ( The Seduction of Mimi , 1972), Film d'amore e d'anarchia ( Love and Anarchy , 1973), Tutto a posto e niente in ordine ( All Screwed Up , 1974), Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto ( Swept Away , 1975), Pasqualino Settebellezze ( Seven Beauties , 1976), Io speriamo che me la cavo ( Ciao, Professore! , 1993)
Ferlita, Ernest, and John R. May. The Parables of Lina Wertmüller . New York: Paulist Press, 1977.
Wertmüller, Lina. The Head of Alvise . London and New York: William Morrow, 1982.
—— The Screenplays of Lina Wertmüller . Translated by Steven Wagner. Introduction by John Simon. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1977.
sophisticated metacinematic narrative (a narrative about movie making) to treat the history of Italian cinema itself, examining not only the heritage of neorealism (especially his model Vittorio De Sica) but also the assumptions of commedia all'italiana . We All Loved Each Other Very Much was the most complex of these films, combining a consideration of the many social and political changes Italy has undergone since the fall of the Fascist regime with an equally comprehensive survey of major developments in the history of postwar Italian film. Dirty, Mean, and Nasty presented a humorous remake of De Sica's proletarian fairy tale, Miracle in Milan (1950). However, Scola completely altered De Sica's fanciful utopian shantytown and his happy poor, for in Scola's contemporary shantytown every positive characteristic of the poor in De Sica's classic work is reversed. Instead of patient, long-suffering, and down-trodden people, Scola shows us vicious, brutish, mean, and nasty individuals without any redeeming moral values who have become what they are because of a desperate economic system. In The Terrace Scola examined the genre so crucial to his own career as a director and scriptwriter, the commedia all'italiana , continuing his metacinematic examination of Italian film history by questioning the very possibility of making film comedies.
With a style indebted to Fellini's baroque imagery, Italy's commedia dell'arte, and a political perspective critical of contemporary Italian society, Lina Wertmüller established herself in the 1970s as Italy's most important female director. Her best works were all typical of the commedia dell'italiana genre: The Seduction of Mimi (1971); Love and Anarchy (1972); Swept Away (1974); and her previously discussed masterpiece, Seven Beauties . Wertmüller's comedies, filled with stock characters and presented with the typical vulgarity of traditional Italian slapstick farce, treated controversial political subjects, such as feminism, women's rights, working-class chauvinism, and the opposition of love and anarchy, with grotesque humor. They frequently highlighted the acting talents of a pair of brilliant comedians, Giancarlo Giannini (b. 1942) and Mariangela Melato (b. 1941). Other important examples of this genre include four films by Monicelli: Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), a parody of a bank robbery film; The Great War (1959), a satirical attack on
patriotism; The Organizer (1963), a very funny account of a Socialist labor organizer; and My Friends (1975), a classical hilarious collection of cruel Tuscan practical jokes played on stupid people. Equally well-crafted works containing interesting social commentary may be found in Comencini's Everybody Home! (1960), a comedy about Italy's withdrawal from World War II; and in two works by Risi: The Easy Life (1962), a portrait of postwar Italian cynicism, and The March on Rome (1962), a send-up of a fanatic believer in Mussolini who persists even after the fall of Il Duce's regime.