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Seven Beauties is a chilling look at one man’s dedication to his survival in Europe during World War II, even within a Nazi concentration camp. Expertly directed by Lina Wertmüller, the film is full of stunning visuals, even if it’s a difficult watch for a modern audience. (NBA: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman
The Oscar-nominated 1975 Italian film Seven Beauties is largely a story about survival. Written and directed by Lina Wertmüller, it follows an Italian man named Pasqualino who deserts the army during World War II and is eventually captured and put into a Nazi concentration camp. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to his pre-war life as the family’s head with his mother and seven unmarried sisters. The film details the murder he committed, his time in an insane asylum, and how he agreed to join the army to escape.
Called Pasqualino Settebellezze in Italian, the film stars Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, and Shirley Stoler. Nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), it is still well regarded today. As the film is a difficult one and a foreign film, it might have faded into obscurity, but it’s known for being the first film to gain a female director the nomination for the Oscar. Wertmüller remained the only female nominee until 1993 when Jane Campion’s nomination for The Piano.
The film’s iconic opening features black and white World War II archival footage scored with jazz music. As clips play, an opening speech unfolds about a petty-bourgeois that the audience will later realize the main character exemplifies. The refrain of “Oh yeah!” punctuates the speech. Overall, there is a jarring effect with the juxtaposition of the music and the punchy “Oh yeah!” paired with the images and the words; this effect is one that characterizes the entire film as it straddles a line between comedy and tragedy.
Bolstered by a stirring lead performance from Giannini as Pasqualino, the film explores darkness. He is a dandy, very concerned with his image, meticulously fixing his hair and carrying a gun for the aesthetic. Most of all, he is obsessed with family honor. He rules over his seven unattractive sisters but is a mama’s boy. He’s a wannabe tough guy, eager to please the mafia’s head in his town, swaggering around flirting with every young woman. He’s not quite a villain, but he’s more irredeemable than your typical anti-hero and doesn’t have any tragic backstory to excuse his terrible ways. He is essentially toxic masculinity personified.
Perhaps the most straightforward example of Pasqualino’s immortality is how he treats women, from his sisters to random women that he encounters. When one of his sisters has become a singer and a prostitute, he attacks her —slapping, kicking, and choking her—before murdering her pimp with whom she is in love. Worse than his sisters’ treatment, though, is his rape of a woman in the insane asylum that he assaults while tied to her bed. It’s a brutal scene to watch, and it cements him as someone with no scruples. In fact, this scene feels gratuitous, as the audience already understands the kind of man he has without having to sit through the disturbing sequence.
The gender dynamics shift when he attempts to seduce the stern and unattractive female guard at the camp, played by Stoler. He manages to win himself food and a better position in the camp in exchange for sexual favors. In the sex scene, she is bathed in green light and shot in ways that make her seem even larger than she is. A modern audience might object to how her “weight” villainizes her further, but it’s clear that it’s her cruelty and not her lack of beauty or size that makes her terrible. It’s the most uncomfortable consensual sex scene I’ve ever seen in a film, yet that’s certainly the point.
For all that shows Pasqualino as a terrible person, Wertmüller is very clear that the Nazis are still worse. While the film never goes so far as to make the audience sympathize entirely with Pasqualino, it is possible to feel for the situation he finds himself in. The film is full of haunting images: camp inmates waiting in a queue to meet their end, hanging corpses, or dead bodies moved into trucks. These scenes are necessary for what Wertmüller is trying to portray, and yet, they’re incredibly challenging to sit through and much worse than we see in most modern films depicting this era.
And yet for all that heaviness, the film is a masterclass in shifting tone. It manages to mingle humor in with the atrocities without trivializing what the Nazis are doing. Instead, Pasqualino trying to dispose of the body of the pimp he murders, is effectively played for laughs, as is a scene in which he feigns madness to get himself moved from prison to the insane asylum. Giannini is fantastic in both the comedic scenes and the intensely emotional scenes. One cut from a comical chase scene to a public whipping in the concentration camp makes the latter seem all the more terrible for its juxtaposition. How Wertmüller mixes the humorous with haunting realism makes both seem more intense.
Seven Beauties itself is striking, with production and costume design by Wertmüller’s husband, Enrico Job. The music is excellent and used effectively, and the camera work is equally stellar. There is an interesting use of lighting—or the lack thereof—in several scenes. Black-and-white shots are occasionally used throughout to remind the viewer of the opening sequence. What’s most impressive is how Wertmüller creates powerful scenes without any dialogue at all, particularly the courtroom scene.
Seven Beauties is the sort of film that takes some digestion after watching to comprehend everything. Wertmüller doesn’t go easy on the audience but forces them to witness some of the worst atrocities of humankind both in Pasqualino’s character and in the situation he finds himself in. Both the themes and the craftmanship of Seven Beauties have easily had stood the test of time.
© Nicole Ackman (9/1/20) FF2 Media
Photo: Giancarlo Giannini as Pasqualino.
Photo Credits: Cinema 5 Distributing
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
The film is very centered around Pasqualino’s main character, and there aren’t any significant scenes of dialogue between two women.