This weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center kicks off a monthlong retrospective devoted to Italian writer-director Lina Wertmüller with the 1975 black comedy Seven Beauties
. One of the most contentious films of its decade, Beauties
is a picaresque tale of one man's survival through World War II; its most controversial passages take place in a realistically rendered Nazi concentration camp. Wertmüller gained her reputation as a provocateur with such international hits as Love & Anarchy
and Swept Away
, and Beauties
is perhaps her most provocative film. It presents the protagonist's survival as a sick joke, and it invokes the commedia dell'arte tradition in its presentations of fascism, murder, and genocide. Remarkably the movie was one of Wertmüller's biggest successes, particularly in the U.S., where it was nominated for four Oscars, including best director. (Wertmüller was in fact the first woman to receive this distinction.) Seen today Beauties
remains a problematic work, a compelling and offensive movie that invites viewers to laugh at some of the most troubling subjects.
The provocation begins from the very first shot. Beauties
opens with a montage of documentary footage of war atrocities and fascist rallies, which Wertmüller scores to a sarcastic blues-rock number. A singer dedicates the song to rank-and-file fascists in mock appreciation, shouting out to "the ones who worship the corporate image, not knowing they work for someone else . . . the ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes," and so on. (In its appropriation of newsreel imagery and its darkly comic tone, the sequence recalls such contemporaneous films by Dusan Makavejev as W.R. Mysteries of the Organism
and Sweet Movie
.) Wertmüller's message is clear: the people who endorsed fascist leaders should be held responsible for the atrocities those leaders committed. For a while, the film doesn't divulge that the protagonist is a fascist himself, but when it does, one instantly recalls the scathing tone of this introductory passage. Perhaps Wertmüller means to say that he deserves the suffering he endures.
The documentary images give way to shots of a man running scared through the woods of Germany. This is the protagonist, Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a recent deserter from Mussolini's army. Encountering another deserter, Pasqualino explains that he stole the bandages he's wearing from a dead man so that he could imitate a corpse. With this detail, Wertmüller introduces Pasqualino as a survivor who uses his wits to preserve himself. When he and the other deserter observe a platoon of Nazis massacring a group of people, Pasqualino insists that they don't stop to investigate (the other one expresses guilt about not having intervened in the slaughter); his desire to survive eclipses any compassion for others. Pasqualino even boasts of having killed before the war, but tries to distinguish himself from the Nazi butchers he just witnessed. "I had my reasons," he says.
From here Wertmüller flashes back to prewar Naples, introducing a second narrative strand that covers how Pasqualino wound up in his current situation. (The director had originally intended to tell the story linearly, but decided on a nonchronological approach while editing the film.) The tone switches instantly from horror to broad comedy—as it will throughout the film—with Wertmüller showing a heavyset woman performing a burlesque number about sanctions against Italy. This woman is one of Pasqualino's seven sisters, Concettina; she has dreams of leaving her working-class life and achieving stardom as a stage actress. Pasqualino vows to murder the pimp who put these dreams in her head, and in doing so, puts himself in the first of many bad situations that determine the plot of the film.
The flashbacks of Beauties
show that Pasqualino ran a mattress factory before the war, using his minor status to live as a little tyrant among the poor of Naples. He gropes the female employees of his factory and talks big to people he sees on the street. (Giannini plays these scenes with impressive comic gusto—one is fascinated by this obnoxious lout in spite of his behavior.) Pasqualino is a pathetic figure even here, puffing himself up and talking big about his family's honor. His encounter with Totonno, the pimp, shows that his big talk is nothing but that—the pimp knocks him out in one punch, making a fool of Pasqualino among his prostitutes. Pasqualino gets even by breaking into Totonno's home later that night and shooting him dead. Unfortunately he shoots before his victim can grab a gun of his own, meaning Pasqualino will be unable to claim the murder was in self-defense.
The remaining flashbacks detail Pasqualino's attempt to get rid of Totonno's corpse, his trial for murder, and his institutionalization in a mental hospital after he successfully pleads insanity in court. Wertmüller intercuts these scenes with others detailing Pasqualino's interment in a concentration camp, where he and the other deserter go when they're discovered by Nazis. The protagonist's ugly behavior before the war seems trivial in comparison to the Nazi atrocities he witnesses in the camp; Wertmüller plays the former as low farce, staging the dismemberment of Totonno's dead body as slapstick comedy. The comic tone falters, however, when Pasqualino goes to the mental institution. In these passages he declares his admiration for Mussolini and, in a particularly ugly scene, rapes a female patient who's tied to a bed. Pasqualino is at his most appalling here; viewers might wonder why they should invest any interest in seeing him survive the concentration camp.
Pasqualino's plan for survival comprises Beauties
's most disgusting development. He decides that he'll seduce the camp's commandant, an obese woman who wears a perpetual scowl. The seduction scene—which Roger Ebert, reviewing Beauties
on its initial release, described as the least erotic in cinema—goes on longer than almost any other in the film. It marks the culmination of the antihero's degradation, as he pleads to provide the commandant with sexual favors so that she might like him. The commandant sees through his plot (she even accuses Pasqualino of having no ideals), but goes along with it anyway. In return for his cunning, she puts him in charge of the barracks where he's living—his first assignment is to select six men in his room for execution.
Wertmüller presents the concentration camp in fittingly horrific detail (the vivid sets and costumes were designed by the director's spouse, Enrico Job), with close-ups of hanged men and wide shots of prisoners being gunned down by guards. These images make the seduction scene seem especially tasteless—to find humor in this setting (even black humor) feels wrong. At the same time, would there be a tasteful way to present the story of a selfish fascist supporter who sucks up to a sadistic commandant to save his own hide? One could argue that Wertmüller's deliberate tastelessness—exacerbated by gawking close-ups and broad, pop-eyed performances—is meant to induce disgust toward the hero. Yet Wertmüller undercuts this disgust through her perversely entertaining depiction of Pasqualino. Giannini's brilliant lead performance (which also received an Oscar nomination) is perhaps too compelling, too enjoyable to serve the film's message appropriately.
The dilemma of Giannini's charisma is similar to that of Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange
, another one of the most contentious films of the 1970s. (Not coincidentally Dave Kehr likened Beauties
to that movie when he reviewed it for the Reader
.) There’s a thin line between inspiring fascination and inspiring sympathy, and Wertmüller toes it throughout the film. In its ambiguity, Beauties
asks viewers to consider whether the will to live trumps morality. There's no easy answer to that question, which is one reason why Wertmüller's film continues to stir debate.