Lina Wertmüller’s Darkly Funny, Story of a Man’s Pratfall Through Italian Fascism

Directed By:  Lina Wertmüller/in Italian and German, with English subtitles
Street Date:  September 12, 2017/Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Imagine a man who thinks he lives his life for honor, who actually posseses none.  In Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties,  Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) is a strutting peacock of a man; his suits, hats, and mustache just so, striding imperiously into every room he enters.  His life is nothing to boast about – he’s a petty criminal who lives in a cramped space with his mother and seven unattractive sisters.  But Pasqualino is, in his own mind, king of all he surveys.  He’s a mini Il Duce.  In the pre-war Italy he’s increasingly observing his sisters behaving in ways that bring shame to his manhood.  When the oldest sister, Concettina, falls in love with a pimp and winds up in prostitution, Pasqualino must defend his honor.  Not Concettina’s honor, mind you, but his own.  Before long Pasqualino has accidentally murdered the pimp and disposed of his body, in scenes which are among the funniest in this strange, bleak comedy.  Having become a murderer, Pasqualino will go on to become a lunatic, rapist, deserter, and collaborator – all against the backdrop of World War II.

Lina Wertmüller wrote and directed Seven Beauties with an audacity that is breathtaking.   There are moments of brilliant physical comedy (Pasqualino staggering under the weight of suitcases holding a dismembered corpse), wrenching pathos (seeing the peacock as a beaten down concentration camp prisoner, trying to seduce the battle axe camp commandant (Shirley Stoler), and unsettling beauty (the prisoners working in a quarry, clouds of rock dust falling on them like snow).  This is not Life is Beautiful, not a whimsical vision of what it might have been like in the camps.  Nor is Pasqualino a lovable goof.  He may be an accidental murderer, but once captured he takes pride in his notoriety.  “I’m the Monster of Naples,” he proudly tells another prisoner.  And he is no accidental rapist, attacking mental patient who is tied to her bed.  When she resists, Pasqualino tapes the patients mouth shut and verbally abuses her even as her rapes her.  Pasqualino may be the protagonist of Seven Beauties, but he is not a hero.

In the concentration camp, Pasqualino does anything and everything he can to survive.  Other prisoners, including Fernando Rey as an anarchist who dreams of a post-fascist future, “a new man in disorder”, cling to their sense of self even when it costs them their lives.  Not Pasqualino, who lives by thoroughly debasing himself.  Does this descent produce growth in Pasqualino?  Does he reach any kind of enlightenment?  I wish I could tell you that there’s some sort of hopeful ending to Seven Beauties, but Pasqualino only seems more desperate to ensure his own survival.  I can’t find a great moral or an uplifting message in Seven Beauties (although there are certainly messages about gender and sex in Italian culture), and yet it is so potent, funny, and striking that even in its bleakness it feels like a gift.  Giannini’s performance is a high wire act.  How can he behave in such despicable ways and still hold the audience’s….well, if not sympathy, at least pity?  Giannino stays on the wire and never falters, whether he’s the preening, vainglorious prewar Pasqualino , or the weeping, craven worm cringing before the commandant, swearing his love to her.

With Seven Beauties Lina Wertmüller became the first woman nominated for an Academy Award.  John Avildsen won for Rocky that year.  I don’t want to take anything away from Avildsen, but Wertmüller was robbed.

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray is stunning, highlighting Wertmüller’s use of a close ups and strong colors.  Special features include a booklet essay by director Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) and film historian Claudia Consolati; an excerpt from the the documentary on Lina Wertmüller,  Behind the White Glasses; an interview with director Amy Heckerling (Clueless), and trailers.