Lina Wertmüller’s 1975 film Seven Beauties is one of the most overlooked pieces of cinematic work about World War II and fascism. Perhaps it has been filed away in film history because the director is a woman. Or maybe it just has confusing international distribution rights. Or possibly it is one of those films that leave the viewer as devastated and broken as the protagonist, to the point where no one ever feels like recommending it afterwards. Whatever the case may be, this writer highly suggests you watch it. Have a film club with some friends, or a movie night with your significant other—and then sit in silence for a while, before lamenting about the futility of all traditions and institutions, and the singular, lonely, doomed future that each human being can look forward to. Our protagonist, Pasqualino Settebellezze (Giancarlo Giannini) has much in common with the orange-faced sociopath who purchased his way into US politics recently, but unlike that fellow, we see that Pasqualino is as much a victim as victimizer.
In a story that flashes back and forwards from Naples under il Duce, to war fields and prison camps along the Rhine, we have the pleasure and disgust of following Pasqualino around to comedic and horrific effect. Wertmüller, who began her career in positions like “third assistant director” on 8 ½, is obviously influenced by Fellini, but I can’t help but wonder if she saw Pink Flamingos or other John Waters’ pictures from around that time. Pasqualino’s sisters, the titular seven beauties, are mostly presented as buxom, rubenesque women who exude sexuality as much as grotesquerie. Or rather, perhaps they remind me of Rossy de Palma, that oddly attractive actress with the large schnoz in all of those Almodóvar pictures. Pasqualino himself is a glassy-eyed, greasy caricature of the family patriarch who holds his masculinity in place with gobs of brylcreem. He is a combination of small time Mafioso and lazy flâneur. In her brilliant book The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics, Kriss Ravetto writes about “men’s fear of being consumed by an all-pervasive infectious femininity, but Wertmüller represents this panic as a consequence of Pasqualino’s realization that masculinity itself is an empty signifier. In other words, masculinity only serves to animate power; it is not powerful in and of itself.”
One scene early on in the film encapsulates Pasqualino’s life. He barges in on his sister Concettina (Elena Flore) and her fellow prostitutes, battering and strangling her in defense of the family name. The other women flock around him, attempting to push him away. Concettina runs off as her pimp Totonno (Mario Conte) arrives. Pasqualino reveals the gun sticking out from his waistband, but Totonno calls his bluff, punches him, and covers him in trash. The women who had previously surrounded Pasqualino to subdue his violence, now fawn over his injured and embarrassed body. Within one scene he goes from vicious manhandler to the manhandled victim.
Pasqualino retaliates by sneaking up on Totonno while the latter is asleep, but botches the “self-defense” murder by accidentally pulling the trigger before Totonno can get to his gun. This scene, which foreshadows the penultimate scene in the prison camp when he is forced to kill by his Nazi captors, is among the many examples of how there are rules, regulations, expectations, and codes of honor that exist throughout all institutions, whether they be the Italian family structure, the mafia “family,” or soldiers under Mussolini, Hitler, etc. The film, also written by Wertmüller, is ultimately about the virtual impossibility—or at least extreme difficulty—of existing or acting outside the normative structures of culture, religion, society, and military. It is about the seeming necessity of institutionalized spaces because most people can’t imagine living a life that could be otherwise. Don Raffaele (Enzo Vitale) can’t offer Pasqualino any protection for the murder of Totonno, because the murderer didn’t follow the rules of murder. Thus, when he is found out, Pasqualino becomes “il Mostro di Napoli.”
One disturbing thing about Seven Beauties is that it is genuinely funny. As Pasqualino attempts to situate Totonno’s dead body so as to dismember it more easily, it isn’t the flatulence erupting from the corpse that is amusing, but Giancarlo Giannini’s acting style, which suddenly becomes Charlie Chaplin-like. Even as he picks up the three suitcases full of body parts, the way he shuffles off is pure Chaplin. Dare I even say that our pitiful anti-hero’s attempt to seduce the unattractive, bulky Nazi commandant (Shirley Stoler) later in the film is also full of humor—that nervous humor we feel when we don’t know if this dirty guappo dressed in prison stripes will succeed in escaping or be killed at any second. Needless to say, this is on the pitch black of midnight end of the humor spectrum. This mixture of humor and fascism is most likely a reason why it did not go down in history as one of the great World War II films. Although Wertmüller did go down in history as the first woman director to be nominated for a best director Oscar, the canon prefers light, neo-liberal pieces of bore such as Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997).
As Ravetto illustrates, Seven Beauties has much more in common with Pasolini’s Salo (1975) and Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974). Whereas The Night Porter is disturbing because of its mixture of eroticism and fascism, Wertmüller’s film is far more playful—by the end, however, no one is laughing. The Night Porter became iconic from the attraction of the androgynous, child-like Charlotte Rampling, half naked in SS garb on movie posters, while Seven Beauties took the back seat when the woman dressed in uniform was the matronly, grotesque, cigar chomping commandant that Pasqualino unsuccessfully tries to bribe. This scene continues to emasculate the protagonist, but Wertmüller’s motives are not some kind of female empowerment strategy. Fascism cancels out any kind of gendered power. Ravetto states, “gender itself does not seem to be biologically determined nor does it determine anatomical destiny but is contingent on one’s association with power.”
Throughout Seven Beauties, Pasqualino Settebellezze plays a patriarch, brother, son, criminal, murderer, rapist, soldier, deserter, electro-shock patient, guappo, prisoner, kapo, and dehumanized tool. By the film’s conclusion, he is nothing more than alive.