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
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,"
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. …