'Behind the White Glasses': Film Review

Behind the White Glasses - H 2016
Courtesy of The Venice Film Festival
Must-viewing for film buffs.

Valerio Ruiz's documentary chronicles the career of the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for best director.

Most filmmakers have peaks and valleys in their career, but few have a peak as memorable as that of Italian writer/director Lina Wertmuller. Between 1972 and 1975, she made four films — The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, Swept Away … and Seven Beauties — that were international successes and instant classics. For the last, she became the first female director to score an Oscar nomination. Valerio Ruiz's documentary Behind the White Glasses (the title refers to Wertmuller's trademark eyewear, which she says have "a sunny feel") chronicles the career of the pioneering auteur.

Ruiz, who served as an assistant director to Wertmuller on a 2009 television movie — yes, she has remained prolific, even if most of her later films never received American distribution — is clearly enamored of his subject. This affectionate portrait includes extensive interviews with Wertmuller, who remains vital in her late 80s, as well as performance footage of her singing her original compositions.

Wertmuller's friendship with Marcello Mastroianni led to her becoming assistant director to Federico Fellini on 8 ½. "I was a lousy assistant director," admits Wertmuller, who says that one of her chief duties was finding the sort of exotic faces that Fellini loved — including, it turned out, Wertmuller's own mother.

She made her directorial debut with the 1963 social-themed drama The Lizards, employing many members of Fellini's regular film crew. The movie was not particularly successful, nor were several follow-up efforts. But she hit the jackpot in 1972 with Mimi, on which she took a big chance by casting two unknowns, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, in the lead roles. The pair would go on to co-star in both Love and Anarchy and the smash hit Swept Away, among others.

Giannini talks at length about his fruitful collaboration with the director, which resulted in him becoming an international star and garnering an Oscar nomination for Seven Beauties.

"I was a subject she could easily play around with," he comments, pointing to the outrageous scene between him and "that huge woman" in Mimi as an example. He also recounts a moving story of how, on their first trip to New York, they walked agog through Times Square in which several theaters were showing their films, trumpeted by huge exterior posters.

Melato, who died in 2013 at the age of 71, is seen in a vintage interview clip in which she expresses effusive gratitude to Wertmuller for taking a chance on her "when nobody else would."

Wertmuller also talks about her career with insight and self-effacement.

"You have to defend yourself from success," she says. "You can't believe it too much."

The observation is particularly resonant because the director never managed to recapture her former glory to the same degree. After Seven Beauties, Warner Bros. came calling and signed her to a four-film contract. But her first effort (and first English-language film), 1978's A Night Full of Rain, was a notorious flop, one that co-star Giannini ascribes to both its downbeat subject matter and his difficulties with the language.

Many of Wertmuller's collaborators and fans are heard from, including Sophia Loren, who describes how she and the director instantly got off on the wrong foot on 1978's Blood Feud over the issue of the actress's radical makeup. Harvey Keitel, who worked with her on the 1985 crime drama Camorra, sings her praises, even as she credits herself (along with Jane Campion) for turning him into a romantic lead. Among the others weighing in are Rutger Hauer, Nastassja Kinski and Martin Scorsese.

Also interviewed is veteran film critic John Simon, clearly one of her biggest fans, who says that she's one of only two great women film directors in history, the other being Leni Riefenstahl. But even he admits that Wertmuller's later efforts, at the least the few that he managed to catch on DVD, were disappointing.

Still, the documentary makes clear Wertmuller plows on. Its final shot is of her happily typing away on the screenplay of a new film. And anyone who saw and loved her '70s era classics will no doubt be hoping that her next one will be a return to form.

Distributor: Parade Deck Films
Production: Recalcati Multimedia, White Glasses Film
Director-screenwriter: Valerio Ruiz
Producer: Leonardo Recalcati
Executive producers: Leonardo Recalcati
Director of photography: Giuseppe Pignone
Editor: Pierluigi Leonardi
Composer: Lucio Gregoretti

Not rated, 104 minutes