Once, women ruled the earth and "men were their slaves," she says. "This is true," she insists. "This is true."
Lina Wertmuller is insisting. She is Italian. She is a famous movie director. She has a full head of opinions. Her eyes are nearly black, and they seem to know everything. They are staring through those ridiculous white glasses, insisting. There is nothing to do but nod in agreement.
"Three million years ago -- or maybe it was three thousand, it doesn't matter -- there was a matriarchal society," she says. "This was before we figured out that sex led to procreation. This was when we thought babies were created solely by the mother, and the man was underneath the woman, like a slave."
Yes, like a slave.
"And during the summer solstice in June, they ate their men," she continues, black eyes steady. "Women were like bees. They didn't want old men around, didn't want old lovers -- which does make some sense biologically. ..."
Clouds of patchouli blow off her body with every gloriously complicated arm gesture and Mediterranean shrug. She is wearing a brown suede fedora and a tweed jacket with the sleeves jammed up over her elbows. She is wearing four watches on one wrist. She is sitting in the back of a limousine on its way to the Italian Embassy for a luncheon -- her new movie opened Filmfest DC last week. She is smiling. She is always smiling.
"And then," she says, "it came into their heads that all that messing around in the bushes on spring nights was how life was created -- and that the seed of man was important. It was then that he became the god of life and everything changed. The war began. And unfortunately, the men won."
Somebody has to. Wertmuller's big movies -- "Seven Beauties" and "Love and Anarchy" and "The Seduction of Mimi" -- are all about this. In "Swept Away" there were loud, embarrassing struggles on the sand between Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. They kept rolling their huge eyes and hating each other's guts. They kept shouting right in each other's faces and dragging each other over dunes.
They were fighting, fighting, fighting, always fighting -- that gigantic wonderful social political economic eternal Italian war that is love.
Wertmuller is still smiling, no matter what. This has a positive effect. She is so strong and smiling and Italian that she can charge the sedated air of a leased limousine with dingy velour seats and give it an absurd festival feeling, suddenly. She takes off her white glasses and sticks them in her mouth. She is licking them. She is wiping them. Why not? She has the kind of attitude that makes everybody else seem like haunted depressos. Minus the glasses, she starts taking on a Joan of Arc quality -- the short cropped white angel hair and miniature body. She has suffered, in any case. Since her acclaimed masterpiece, "Seven Beauties" -- which got her an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 1976 -- critics have pretty much been burning her pictures at the stake.
She keeps making them, though. One a year.
"I am always working. Always. Always. Always." She speaks in triplicate -- in Italian and English or through her interpreter, a Napolitan-American beauty named Leonore, whom Wertmuller has brought from Rome. Wertmuller's longtime husband, sculptor Enrico Job, is back at their villa in Northern Italy, planting a garden for spring.
"I'd love to not work so hard," she says.
What would she do?
"I'd see five movies a day," she says. "Film is my big problem. I am involved too much. I love too much. I've been trying to resolve it for 35 years now, but for now, I have to keep making them."
Big loves. Big hates. Big everything. Wertmuller's voice lies somewhere on the register between Marlene Dietrich and the idle of a Harley-Davidson. Her laugh is subterranean.
"I love life," she says. "I love my friends. I love to eat. Too many things, I love. I am very much an anti-historical character. I am attracted to happy people. Happy people with very grave problems."
Does it surprise Wertmuller that she's the only woman ever nominated for Best Director?
"It surprises me even more," she says, "that I didn't win."
A slow, wise Italian feeling takes over the limousine. It's the kind of feeling -- domani may never come -- that makes you park your car illegally, or drive on the sidewalk. There should be colored lights hanging inside the limo, and some polka music. Washington slides by, a blur of green in the windows. Cleveland Park slides by, green and pink. Chevy Chase slides ...
"A paradise here," she says, sighing. "Luminista. A luminista vision. A dream of a city. It sprang from the dream of genius. I'm crazy for this place. I'm crazy for this garden place. This paradise."
She loves the tulips.
She loves the azaleas.
She loves the ...
"What is this called?"
Wood of the dog.
She was born with this name, Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmuller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich, in some year around 1928 or so, depending on which book you look at. Asking her age is something that requires bravery beyond the scope of the normal journalist, and will be left for someone stronger. So, she's about 64, the years of being thrown out of dozens of Catholic schools as a girl way behind her ... and yet, yet, yet, somehow right here all the time. Her father was a Roman lawyer, with a dash of aristocratic Swiss ancestry -- hence the von, hence the Braueich, hence the Wertmuller.
She went to the Theatre Academy in Rome, and graduated. She toured with a puppet show. She wrote and directed and acted for the stage for 10 years -- and met Giancarlo Giannini, who later became the star of her pictures. Marcello Mastroianni and his wife, Flora (an old schoolmate of Wertmuller's), got her into pictures. She started as an assistant director to Federico Fellini on "8 1/2" in 1963.
At the Italian Embassy for the luncheon in her honor, Wertmuller is asked by Jack Valenti -- president of the Motion Picture Association of America -- if she's seen the great director Fellini lately. They talk across the long table.
"I saw him just two days ago," she says.
"And how is he?" asks Valenti.
"He's wonderful," she says. "He is talking about a new project. And money. But he is always talking about money. Money. Money. Money. I love him. Maybe he's crazy, but I love him. Maybe everybody thinks we are crazy people ... but that's the way we are."
She rubs her arm and the four wristwatches bump against each other.
"Lina," somebody asks, "what time is it?"
"I asked Lina about her watches," says Max Berry, a Filmfest board member, sitting on Wertmuller's right, "which are all different and have different times, and she said that she loves exaggeration."
"Yes," she says. "I do."
Floating around the Italian Embassy on a sunny afternoon in the dead middle of the week can be a miraculous, uplifting experience -- so much great light and so many Italians. Wertmuller is in heaven. A group of about 25 people are gathered -- mostly Filmfest DC people, such as opening night committee chairman Robin Smith and her husband, CBS reporter Bill Plante. Valenti seems at home, as always. Ina Ginsburg carries a pair of white sunglasses in her hands as though in tribute to Wertmuller, but it's probably coincidental. Tony Gittens, the president of Filmfest, is with his wife, Jennifer, the program director of PBS. Both Pedas Brothers -- Ted and Jim -- who back the Coen Brothers' movies, turn up.
Wertmuller sits between Berry and the Italian ambassador, Boris Biancheri, and she sticks her elbows up on the table whenever she feels like it. Her smile never stops. The only thing that seems to bother her is her English. "I am so ashamed that it isn't better," she says.
"Tell me, Lina," says Valenti. "Does Marcello Mastroianni speak any English now?"
"He's like my brother," she says.
"No," he says, "I mean, does he speak English? I told him years ago if he'd only learn English, he could be a huge star in America."
"Oh no," she says. "Terrible. Terrible. He's terrible."
In the '70s, when Wertmuller's movies were hugely popular in this country, there was a running bit on "Saturday Night Live" in which Laraine Newman ratted her hair up and pursed her lips and wore a pair of ridiculous white glasses. Wertmuller seemed, at the time, like a cartoon of an Italian director -- a man-eating, chain-smoking, socialist battle-ax, Our Lady Something Like Fellini.
Is she still a socialist?
"Yes," she says. "But for me, it's more of an attitude than a political belief. It's a way of thinking. ... We are living at a great historical moment. The terms are all misplaced now. The ideologies are exploding and the problems are all changing."
She made several movies -- low-budget and fairly unnoticed -- in the '60s, but it wasn't until her fifth one, "Mimi Metallurgico Ferito nell'Onore," or "The Seduction of Mimi," in 1972 that Wertmuller started winning awards and attention. Hits came, one by one, and were distributed in the States. "Love and Anarchy" in 1973, and then "All Screwed Up" in 1974.
The granda blastissima of renown and international celebrity came the same year with "Swept Away," which actually has a considerably longer title, "Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny on the Blue Sea of August," and forever afterward, the long titles of her movies were another sort of joke -- the self-indulgences and decadence of the Italians and all that. After "Seven Beauties," she signed with Warner Bros. and made a massive flop with Giannini and Candice Bergen called "The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain." In 1983 there was "A Joke of Destiny Lying in Wait Around the Corner Like a Street Bandit." In 1986 there was "Summer Night With Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil." In 1989 she made "Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It's Love" with Faye Dunaway and Natassja Kinski and Rutger Hauer -- as an American reporter in Paris who pretends to have AIDS to get a story. Lately, her movies have not been released here.
Reports have always blown in from the Mediterranean: Wertmuller was temperamental and tyrannical on the set. A slave driver too. For years, she has been called both a feminist and a woman hater. Some of her women characters have been hookers and rich bitches, voluptuous and exposed and demanding. Some of them get raped and enjoy it -- the sort of thing that never goes over well. "For years, the feminists thought of me as an army sergeant," she said once. "I was too macho for them."
Now, she says that her problems with feminists never really existed.
"It was a little game we played together. It was just a game," she says. "Think about it. I am a director. I'm the one who can order men around. I didn't need to be told there was a battle going on -- that a thousand years of history had to be turned around. I knew all about that. But a battle can be fought on many fronts at the same time."
Her latest movie -- "Saturday, Sunday, and Monday" -- is about marriage, and "about love," she says. It has no release date yet. It stars Sophia Loren as a housewife who, at first, appears solely interested in cooking great meals for her family. It was written by Italian director and screenwriter Eduardo De Filippo -- best known in this country for "Marriage, Italian Style."
"He is much sweeter than I am," says Wertmuller, who ordinarily writes her own screenplays. "My stories are usually much more ironic and pessimistic and dark and not happy," she says. "This is happier. ... And it's the best thing Sophia Loren has ever done. She's a great, great, great actress. She played the part without makeup. No makeup. No makeup. No makeup."
In the movie, Loren dotes on her spaghetti sauce -- to the point of obsession. "Sauce is a great symbol of love," says Wertmuller. "And Sophia Loren is a very traditional wife, very strong and proud. And her ragu has to be the best ragu in all of Naples, of course. And this takes a lot of time. She starts making it every week on Saturday, buying all the provisions. And she must spend all Sunday with it. It takes patience and dedication, to stay there, by the fire, with her family, making it. It's a rite of love -- feeding her family.
"And the ragu transcends ragu," says Wertmuller. "It becomes a symbol of love, a rite of her loyalty and dedication. And it's around this that the drama resolves."
Wertmuller begins talking about prehistoric times again. The "Great Mother" goddess and the "Mother Earth" and the time long ago when women ran the world and men were their slaves. How there was a war. How the men won.
"And Sophia Loren in 'Saturday, Sunday, and Monday' remembers this battle," says Wertmuller. "Sotto, sotto. Way, way underneath her thinking. And because of this, she can become very dangerous."