The history of the five women nominated for Best Director Oscars begins with the 1975 film Seven Beauties, written and directed by Italian auteur Lina Wertmuller. She was also nominated for Best Screenplay, making her the first woman to be nominated in two major non-technical categories behind the scenes.
Seven Beauties was released with English subtitles in the United States in 1976, meaning that it was eligible to be nominated—and then snubbed—for the 49th Academy Awards in 1977. Perhaps this talented storyteller, who had previously drawn acclaim with Swept Away, Love and Anarchy, and All Screwed Up, would finally be getting her due! However, America at the time was reeling from the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate; instead of Wertmuller, John G. Avildsen won the Best Director Oscar for Rocky.
Rich in character development and widely varied in tone, Seven Beauties is a comedy-drama that comments on hypocrisy, misogyny, fascism, and survival through the story of Pasqualino (played by the legendary Giancarlo Giannini). Our machismo main lead is a small-time Naples gangster during World War II who undergoes a turbulent journey. After being convicted of the accidental murder of a pimp (during which he was defending his sister’s honor), Pasqualino initially pleads insanity. As an alternative to his sentence, he volunteers for the Italian Army, which he then deserts, only to be captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Once imprisoned, Pasqualino finds himself behaving in ways he never imagined in order to survive— culminating in his attempts to seduce a sadistic female commandant. Here, the commandant embodies the masculine as the protagonist’s previous powers wane. Completely emasculated and becomes submissive to her bidding.
As I viewed this darkly funny — at times a very intense film — I became aware of three prominent elements. First off, tonally it felt all over the place, simultaneously a sullen drama and a parody. Even knowing it has been labeled a comedy/drama did not prepare me to laugh hysterically and also become heavily emotional at the same film. Secondly, I quickly forgot about everything else in the world as I became lost in this film due to the frankness with which it explores its many heavy themes—be it the mistreatment of women, the horrors of a concentration camp, or the lows one resort to in order to survive. Finally, Wertmuller’s nomination for both her terrific script and sharp direction was well-earned. She executed Seven Beauties damn near flawlessly.
Seven Beauties works as both a fish-out-of-water story and a character-driven hero’s story. Wertmuller’s writing and Giancarlo Giannini’s wonderful performance serve as a great reminder that just because a character is our so-called “hero” or “protagonist” DOES NOT require them to be likable. However, it does require that the character learns something about himself… in this case, Pasqualino learns that his machismo does not equal power. Wertmuller is not afraid to depict a flawed male lead, and she does not shy away from giving him some of the worst possible traits. And perhaps punishing him for it in an attempt to create balance.
When we first meet Pasqualino, he is close to unbearable, oozing toxic masculinity from every pore. He looks down upon his unattractive sisters, particularly Concettina who has entered into prostitution with the hope of marrying her pimp for the sake of financial security. Considering himself the sole source and defender of dignity for the household, Pasqualino thinks himself superior to others in his family. He repeatedly berates and threatens Concettina, even striking her. It isn’t until Pasqualino mistakenly shoots her pimp dead that his turbulent rabbit hole into survival-at-all-costs begins.
Initially, Pasqualino is convinced he can simply coast through his sentence by pleading insanity. Still overcome with arrogance, Pasqualino’s confidence is soon put to the test as his plans to ride his sentence out in a ward backfire. Thrust into increasingly worse situations, he goes from thriving to barely surviving! He is forced to learn how vulnerable he is, aligning him with the females in his family. Along the way, Pasqualino becomes allied with other memorable characters including a fellow Italian deserter and a colorful Spanish anarchist (a wonderful, supporting turn from The French Connection’s Fernando Rey). Pasqualino finds himself having to rely on others, and is forced to make very tough decisions in order to survive.
In my opinion, no male director could have told this story as well. Wertmuller gives us the evolution of a male from a uniquely female perspective. By the time Pasqualino’s journey ends, he has been through a living hell, and he has seen why Concettina did what she did in order to survive. While I want to see Pasqualino humbled by the time the credits roll, it is unclear to me whether or not this will last. Traumatized? Clearly. Shellshocked? Affirmative. But has he really been changed? I don’t know.
Indeed, Wertmuller handles her material with such nuance that she will not spoon-feed the audience an obligatory happy ending. That’s reason alone to study her work. Furthermore, she likely influenced other directors like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin McDonough—all of whom possess the ability to seamlessly interweave broad comedy with deep emotional moments.
Seven Beauties is a timeless story themed on survival that examines an arrogant, flawed male who is put in his place. Interestingly, Wertmuller lost her nomination to another film about a tenacious Italian in Rocky. Perhaps Rocky was the platter of comfort food that America so craved in the turbulent 1970s. Seven Beauties—on the other hand—I’d describe as a bitter pill: less pleasant but filled with important elements. The former might have been what America wanted, but could the latter have been what it needed?
By examining Italian machismo against the backdrop of one of history’s darkest chapters, Wertmuller has delivered a film that remains eerily relevant today, as history is always in danger of repeating itself. More importantly, she came the closest to breaking AMPAS’s celluloid ceiling. It would take another 18 years (!!!) for the AMPAS to nominate another woman Best Director—Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano.
© Jarrod Emerson FF2 Media LLC