SAN FRANCISCO — In the 1970s, Italian film director Lina Wertmuller became the first woman ever nominated for an Academy Award for best director and was hailed as the next Fellini for her powerful political comedies.
Since then, some critics have asked if she has gone soft, and it seems her name is more often a crossword puzzle clue than the focus of a new movie review.
Although her public profile has faded, Wertmuller continues at age 78 to make movies. San Francisco recently witnessed the world premiere of her latest film, "Too Much Romance ... It's Time for Stuffed Peppers," about the marital woes of a couple played by F. Murray Abraham and Sophia Loren.
In an interview, Wertmuller, with tightly cropped white hair and white glasses, said her artistic vision remained strong though she has not found a U.S. distributor for her films for a decade. "Even American artists are terrorized by market forces," she said. "If one can't see the films, my wings are clipped.
"I am no longer concerned about this, because I'm focused on making films. Perhaps one day someone who discovers sunken treasures will reexamine my 35 or 36 films -- I hope it will be 40 or 50 before I die."
A filmmaker since the early 1960s -- she worked as an assistant to Federico Fellini on "8 1/2 " in 1962 -- Wertmuller took world cinema by storm with her politically charged films of the 1970s, including "The Seduction of Mimi" and "Swept Away." Her Oscar nomination came in 1977 for "Seven Beauties."
In 2002, singer Madonna starred in a critically lambasted remake of "Swept Away," the story of a haughty, upper-class woman who, when shipwrecked, concedes to serve as her deckhand's slave and sex object before love blossoms.
"I made a mistake," Wertmuller said about her decision to grant Madonna the film rights.
Experts debate whether the quality of Wertmuller's films or the whims of the public changed after the 1970s.
"To some extent her fortunes resemble the broader fortunes of Italian cinema," said John Welle, a professor of Italian studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "The political filmmaking of the 1970s had a wider following also in the United States.
"In the 1980s and '90s ... political issues were less important to younger generations."
Millicent Marcus, author of "Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism," believes Wertmuller lost her touch. "Her outrageous sort of grotesque style that blended sexuality and political ideology was very in tune with the sort of post-1968 cultural climate. So she really captured the zeitgeist," she said. "Once that moment passed she no longer had her hand on the pulse of the cultural life of the times of the 1980s and 1990s."
Wertmuller counters that such critics have not seen her poorly distributed latest films and thus are in no position to judge them.