A Change in Direction Italian Film Maker Lina Wertmuller Leaves Sexual Politics Behind for a Story about Kids but She Hasn't Abandoned Her Trademark Commentary on Society's Ills

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FOR NEARLY two decades, Lina Wertmuller was the only woman ever nominated for an Academy Award in direction - a distinction that invariably surfaced in every discussion of progress by women in film.

Australian Jane Campion's Oscar win this year for "The Piano" has changed the boilerplate - now Wertmuller will simply be the first woman ever nominated for Best Director. But the diminutive Italian film maker couldn't be more delighted.

"I'm very happy, because I admire the movie deeply," Wertmuller said, seated in a Los Angeles hotel room and speaking through an interpreter. "I thought `The Piano' was a masterpiece.

"But it's only the first instance of an event that will henceforth be more usual. There should be no prejudices, either in favor of men or women.

"Women themselves have been accomplices in this. This should not happen, should not be - an artist, or an artisan, should be able to work without thinking about this sort of thing."

Wertmuller knows very well what it's like to have one's work criticized on the basis of gender. Several of the films that made her internationally famous in the mid-1970s - particularly "Love and Anarchy" and "Swept Away" - also attracted barbs from the feminist movement for what were perceived as uncomplimentary portrayals of women.

(She got the Oscar nomination for 1976's "Seven Beauties," starring Giancarlo Giannini as a small-time Lothario who fights ferociously to survive in a World War II concentration camp.)

"Ciao, Professore!," Wertmuller's newest film, which opened in St. Louis Friday, is more or less devoid of the sexual politics that permeated these earlier works. In fact, most of the characters are under the age of 9 - it's the story of a northern Italian schoolteacher assigned to a rough-and-tumble school in the south - but that doesn't mean Wertmuller has given up on social commentary.

The film was originally called "Me, Let's Hope I Make It," the name of a book of children's essays compiled by Marcello d'Orta, who spent 10 years teaching elementary school in villages around Naples. "After he gathered all the compositions, which told about reality through the eyes of the kids, he picked the best, and did the book. The book is very funny, and also tragic and ironic, with the joy of Neapolitan kids who have a great sense of humor," Wertmuller said.

But the book had no central figure, so Wertmuller and a team of writers created the character of middle-aged schoolteacher Marco Sperelli, who had sought a posting nearer to his home but was mistakenly assigned to teach third grade in the ramshackle village of Corzano. There, he is confronted with a school so corrupt that the janitor must be paid for toilet paper, and students are as likely to be running Mafia errands as attending class.

To portray these lively and outspoken urchins, Wertmuller went straight to the source. "I searched the streets of Naples, literally," she said. "I looked in streets, at schools - I looked at almost 100,000 of them. The screening took almost two months."

While Wertmuller was writing the script, she began working with a group of 60 finalists. …