LINA WERTMULLER is troubled. She has just asked someone for an opinion of her new movie, "A Joke of Destiny," and has been met by numb silence. "The pause says everything," she says in mild pique. She finds the streets full of embarrassed admirers these days; even her champion, critic John Simon, says that "A Joke of Destiny" is a minor work. But dismay is only temporary for this peppery, 56-year-old homunculus of a woman, wearing Japanese pajamas and her trademark white glasses as she twirls around Central Park. "I never had the desire to beat up a critic," she says puckishly. For Lina Wertmuller, to be great is to be misunderstood.
Take "A Joke of Destiny." What seems like a trifling, pedantic set piece about a man trapped in a car and the chaos it inspires in the home of an Italian legislator is actually a statement "on the dangers of the Apocalypse," Wertmuller says, in a voice that cigarettes have made as rough as dry toast. The white specs dominate her visage. Her head is iced with short white hair, and the sun has left an elegant filigree of wrinkles curving across her cheek.
"Our actual god is science and technology," she continues in halting English. "Beneath this umbrella of alarm, I'm trying to make an ironic document, several pages of recent Italian history. Through the symbolism of this family, this house, which has both superior and inferior elements, part in light, part in darkness. The subterranean part is not less important. "It's an ironic document so that Americans, for example, can come to better understand Italy, which is not easy to understand, even for the Italians."
Or try "Seven Beauties." Was it a fascistic film purporting to decry fascism, as Bruno Bettelheim claimed in a celebrated New Yorker screed? "We talked about it," Wertmuller says. "Either he absolutely did not understand or I was not clear in explaining. Bettelheim ascribed a reading to 'Seven Beauties' that, strangely, was very superficial for a man so intelligent. I told a true story, which I knew to be true -- I knew the protagonist -- a story I find hallucinating in the way in which it offends humanity."
Or how about "Swept Away"? That film was attacked by feminists for its misogyny and glorification of rape (indeed, rape is a recurring motif in Wertmuller's films). "I have a very good rapport with feminists today," says Wertmuller, who considers herself a feminist. "Then they were in the middle of a battle, in a position of breaking away, in which they couldn't give the film a calm reading. Anything that seemed at first sight to be against them they took as a personal offense.
"I reject entirely the idea that 'Swept Away' was an invitation to hit your wife to make love better. The mysteries of Venus are great mysteries. When I hear cats making love, I feel that they suffer atro ciously. But I know that instead it's a natural force of love."
Wertmuller came to film from the theater. Growing up in a "very bourgeois" home in Rome, the young Lina rejected her parents' wishes that she study law like her father, and instead went off to study Stanislavsky in drama school. Rebellion was in the air. "The atmosphere then was very alive for young people," Wertmuller remembers. "The end of dictatorship, the new possibility for Italy, the need to build. It was a beautiful thing to be young."
Wertmuller, in fact, has now returned to the theater -- she's looking for New York financing for a play she has written. "Theater and cinema," she says, "are cousins who are very affectionate for each other."
Wertmuller is friends with Marcello Mastroianni, and it was through the famed Italian actor that she met Federico Fellini, who asked her to be his assistant on "8 1/2," or, as Wertmuller says, "Etteneff." Today, she cites Fellini as her greatest influence. "There was this adventure with him," she says. "He's inimitable. It's illuminating to be close to him, because you're close to a character who's so profoundly nonconformist, who runs within himself like a child following a kite."
Are there any other directors she admires? "Multissimo," she says. "The last 2,000.
"But the problem with contemporary directors," Wertmuller continues, "is in the arc of their work. The director should create an arc where the vision is repeated according to the rule that each auteur always makes the same film. For example, 'Visconti is the director of decadence.' In our time, it's difficult to continue the line. Many directors who are very interesting choose to make popular films, which means making money. They choose success as a religion of fate."
With Fellini's encouragement, Wertmuller went to Sicily and made "The Lizards," her first feature. From there, success followed upon success: "Love and Anarchy" (1973),"The Seduction of Mimi"(1974), "Swept Away" (1974) and the crowning "Seven Beauties"(1976), which led the professionally cantankerous Simon to compare her to Goya, Debussy and Proust.
Since "Seven Beauties," however, Wertmuller has made a series of movies -- "A Night Full of Rain" (1978), "Blood Feud" (1979) and now "A Joke of Destiny" -- which have left critics and audiences something besides awed. This, characteristically, leaves Wertmuller unperturbed. "It's always been seen in the history of culture that certain works were understood afterwards," she says. "The perspective came afterwards.