Thursday, August 25, 2011

Seven Beauties

Pasqualino Settebellezze; grotesque, Italy, 1975; D: Lina Wertmüller, S: Giancarlo Giannini, Shirley Stoler, Elena Fiore, Enzo Vitale, Fernando Rey

Naples, shortly before World War II.
Pasqualino acts as a macho and wants to protect the oldest of his seven sisters, the chubby 37-year old Concettina, from a pimp who wants to make a cabaret star out of her. When the pimp persuades her to become a prostitute, Pasqualino shoots him. He gets sentenced to 12 years and sent to a mental asylum. There he charms the female director and in order to get out enlists to fight in the Italian Army. He deserts somewhere on the Eastern front and lands in a Nazi concentration camp. In order to save his skin, he seduces the obese female camp commandant. Back at home, he forgives his fiance for surviving as a prostitute and wants 25 children.

A grotesque (and far more realistic) forerunner to Benigni's "Life is Beautiful", "Seven Beauties" didn't just gain cult reputation because its author Lina Wertmuller became the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for best director, but also due to a black humored story that dismantles the masculinity myths, showing how the main anti-hero transforms from a 'macho' who dictates his seven sisters how they should live to an obedient servant in a Nazi concentration camp who seduces the obese female camp commandant in order to survive, thus yielding to feminine power. From the bizarre opening showing archive footage of World War II accompanied by the legendary song "Oh yeah", that sums up symbolically all the human vice, up to small jokes about the mafia (the double-bottom coffin where an "extra" corpse can be secretly added by mobsters), Wertmuller shows she is a nihilist who views the whole world as a huge mess, which is why some have criticized her for depicting life as purely biological survival, without any spiritual or emotional dimension that enriches it.

Numerous scenes are haunting and entirely extreme, but also comical at the same time, especially when Pasqualino is "neurotically" trying to seduce the repulsive female camp commandant by "whimsically" whistling a "seductive tune" to her, while the camera just shows her deadpan face in an extreme close-up, until she slaps him and yells: "What kind of nonsense are you doing here?" The scene where he is having intercourse with her with his eyes shut turns into a grotesque without limits. Dark and cruel, and yet Wertmuller is - more or less - stylistically consistent, even in the end saying something about life - people who die for ideals will not survive, people who give up their ideals to live on will - advancing almost into an 'ugly classic', whereas her only sympathy is shown towards anarchist communists, one of whom, a camp inmate, gives a long rant about how in "200-300 years there will be 20 billion people on Earth and then it will be worse than here, because people will be killing each other for a piece of bread and an apple."


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