The cinema of Lina Wertmüller dangles before feminist critical theory like a poisoned carrot. One of the sharpest female auteurs of her time, Wertmüller is – in the modern vernacular – “problematic.” Her films present us with problems, often ones which we have no hope of solving. Seven Beauties is one such film, a slick and clever cavalcade of ugliness and grotesqueries on a historical scale that sees fit to incorporate pretty much every type of unpleasantness conceivable, from sexual assault to electroshock therapy to dismemberment to holocaust. Few filmmakers other than Wertmüller can flirt so openly with such nauseous subject matter and get away with it. She produced a picture that somehow achieves moments of great beauty and hilarity amidst the chaos, pain, and despair of abject human suffering.
And yet Seven Beauties (1975), like nearly all her work, is decidedly un-feminist. Though it is a portrait of a shallow and pitiful Italian man caught up in codes of masculinity in a hyper-patriarchal society, the same could be said of half of Fellini’s oeuvre. Fellini, who groomed Wertmüller on pictures like his astonishing and narcissistic magnum opus, 8 ½, could hardly be considered a cinematic champion of the feminist cause. Though it would be the height of chauvinism to accredit her success to his contributions, one cannot help but look at the films that Wertmüller went on to make and find traces of Fellini’s masculinist self-loathing in her overwhelmingly male protagonists. Chantal Akerman, she is not.
Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” Frafuso, played by Wertmüller’s rat-faced muse Giancarlo Giannini, is an uptight womanizing loser living with his seven ugly sisters in Naples. Despite living relatively carefree and with no real concern over the rise of fascism, Pasqualino is obsessed with traditional Italian ideals of manhood and honor. When he visits a brothel and discovers that his oldest and ugliest sister has become a prostitute, he does the rational thing and murders her pimp. Our hero proves to be not the best of murderers, being utterly humiliated in his first attempt and only succeeding by cowardly sneaking into the home of his victim. In a gut-wrenching sequence, Wertmüller takes physical comedy to its blackest extremes as Pasqualino attempts to dispose of the body by cutting it into pieces and packing it into luggage on the advice of macho gangster-types that he knows.
Pasqualino, unsurprisingly, is caught. Labeled “the butcher of Naples,” he escapes a death sentence by pleading insanity, winding up in a sanatorium where he rapes a female patient to satisfy his own self-image. This violation receives no real retribution, but when Pasqualino comically impersonates Mussolini as yet another lunatic in the nuthouse, he receives electro-shock therapy as punishment. Melting under the pressure of the facility, Pasqualino escapes by being drafted into the now desperate Italian army.
The events of Pasqualino’s life in the army are skipped over, leaving the audience lurching back and forth between his time in Naples and his time as a deserter, roaming the Northern Italian countryside and eventually winding up in a concentration camp. The miseries of the first act are nothing compared to Wertmüller’s relentless depiction of Nazi atrocities. Who but her could go for the most obvious of filmmaking choices: playing Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries over rows upon rows of starving naked bodies? Pasqualino, as always, prioritizes survival above all else. He devises a pathetic scheme to ride out his time in the camp by becoming the sex slave of the obese female commandant.
Hilariously and depressingly, the scheme works. Slicking back his hair with his own saliva, Pasqualino’s sad little performance as a lothario amuses the sadistic commandant, and she brings him up to her office for some pretty unerotic abuse. There must have been some competition between Wertmüller and Fellini in the mid 1970s over who could film a more appallingly unsexy sex scene. Between Fellini’s bizarre and coprophilic flights of fancy in Casanova and this scene, in which Pasqualino’s scrunched orgasmic face is violently intercut with a close-up of a portrait of Adolf Hitler, the two filmmakers seem to have been dead set on permanently killing the Italian libido.
Indeed, Pasqualino survives by selling his body and shooting his friend at the insistence of the guards. He returns home to Naples at the end of the war to find that (and here’s the kicker!) all of his sisters have become prostitutes to survive the war. Seven Beauties is essentially one long prostitution joke, one which operates on the central thesis that anyone who can survive war must inherently be some kind of monster. In a brilliant and sickening twist of fate, Wertmüller chronicles how a man who once assaulted his own sister for becoming a prostitute is forced to pimp himself out.
Thus, Seven Beauties is a long-form sarcastic paean to the Italian postwar spirit, a bitter lampoon of a generation that fell for fascism and then patted itself on the back for overcoming fascism. Its theme is desperation and its cinematic methods are brutal and sharp. In making such a film, Wertmüller concerned herself little with the issues of women’s liberation and focused intensely on the impossibility of liberation as a concept. Pasqualino finds himself alive and free at the end of the movie, repeating “I am alive” to himself. Yet he is so very clearly dead inside, his face a haunting mask bearing witness to the unspeakable crimes committed by himself and his nation. Seven Beauties lands with a devastating blow on its audience, crushing hope and mocking our desire for resolution. It is an ugly film made beautifully.