Blog Directory CineVerse: Dark political comedy, Italian style

Dark political comedy, Italian style

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Directed by Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties is a dark comedy-drama from 1975 depicting the story of Pasqualino, a World War II petty criminal and deserter portrayed by Giancarlo Giannini. Renowned for its black humor and thought-provoking perspective on war, politics, and human nature, the movie follows Pasqualino as he navigates a harsh and tumultuous world and tries to survive despite increasingly harsh circumstances. The film delves into themes of endurance, morality, and the dehumanizing impact of war. Despite its somber thematic content and graphic violence, Wertmüller skillfully infuses laughs and satire into the storyline, resulting in a distinctive fusion of genres.

Seven Beauties garnered critical acclaim for its daring and unconventional approach, securing four Academy Award nominations, notably Best Director for Wertmüller, making this the first film directed by a woman to receive a nomination in that category.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Seven Beauties, conducted last week, click here.

One of the most interesting things about Seven Beauties is that, despite being made by a woman, it’s not regarded as a feminist film. Many of the female characters in the picture are deliberately made to look and act ugly, grotesque, fat, crazy, cruel, and inhuman. Wertmüller makes us follow and root for a repugnant, unsympathetic man who commits murder and rape, acts violently against women, kills his fellow prisoners, and yet survives against the odds.

Seven Beauties has one of the strangest opening sequences of any 1970s film, featuring black-and-white archival war footage mixed with a jazzy tune married to badly sung lyrics that seem to be indicting the gullibility of the Italian people for their part as an Axis power in World War II under the spell of the dictator Mussolini.

Additionally, the movie adopts sudden and strange tonal shifts, trying to balance between serious drama and black comedy and often leaving the viewer unsure as to how they should feel. Wertmüller attempts to wield comedy as a tool to navigate through the tragedy, introducing a layer of complexity to the narrative. Some critics found fault with this approach, while others admired it.

Per reviewer Amelie Lasker: “The film is a masterclass in shifting tone. It manages to mingle humor with the atrocities without trivializing what the Nazis are doing. Instead, Pasqualino trying to dispose of the body of the pimp he murders, is effectively played for laughs, as is a scene in which he feigns madness to get himself moved from prison to the insane asylum. Giannini is fantastic in both the comedic scenes and the intensely emotional scenes…How Wertmüller mixes the humorous with haunting realism makes both seem more intense.”

Seven Beauties is noteworthy, too, because Wertmüller often uses no dialogue to depict major scenes, such as the courtroom sequence; also, the narrative is told in nonlinear fashion, beginning in the middle of Pasqualino’s tale and interspersing lots of flashbacks as it cuts between timelines. Cinema Sight blogger Wesley Lovell wrote: “One of the most interesting things about the film is the structure of the parallel time periods. The present-tense segments are short at the beginning and grow in length until they dominate the latter half of the film. In reverse, the flashbacks monopolize the first half of the film and then diminish in length through the end. And the final scene, designed like the flashbacks, but purportedly taking place in the present, almost seems too idyllic and hopeful, suggesting that perhaps what we’re witnessing is a flashforward of desire and not an embodiment of reality.”

This would have been controversial as one of the first films to attempt a graphically violent representation/recreation of a Nazi concentration camp where Holocaust victims were kept and killed. Seven Beauties also contains one of the most deliberately repulsive and non-titillating sex scenes ever made.

Survival at all costs is the predominant tenet here. The filmmakers continually ask: What are you willing to do and how much morality and self-respect are you willing to forego to survive when you are desperate? Pasqualino, ironically a man consumed with maintaining honor, appearances, and dignity, is prepared to debase himself to the extreme to avoid death and punishment. He learns that, to survive and thrive, you have to be willing to compromise yourself and your values, as evidenced when he returns home at the end to find that his mother, sisters, and the girl he loves have all become prostitutes. Unlike earlier in the film, when he would have rejected these supposedly corrupted women, he accepts their status and insists on marrying the prostitute who loves him.

“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,” opined Blogger Eli Boonin-Vail. “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.”

The dehumanizing effects of war are front and center, as well. Pasqualino is forced to commit immoral acts while a soldier, deserter, and concentration camp prisoner that erodes any sense of morality, honor, or dignity.

A reading of Seven Beauties is also impossible without exploring gender politics. Pasqualino seems to represent some of the worst aspects of toxic masculinity, including the adoption of macho bravado, misogynistic treatment of women, and being sexually opportunistic and deviant. But we witness his gradual debasement as the power dynamics are shifted away from Pasqualino to other women, including the asylum clinician and the female commandant of the Nazi concentration camp.

Lastly, consider how political crimes are punished worse than more reprehensible acts in the world of Seven Beauties. Pasqualino gets a lighter sentence than another prisoner who is labeled a socialist, and he’s more severely punished (with electroshock therapy) for mocking Mussolini in the sanitarium than he is for raping a patient there. Talk about making a political statement as a filmmaker.

Similar works

  • Amarcord
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Life is Beautiful

Other films by Lina Wertmüller

  • Swept Away
  • The Seduction of Mimi
  • Love and Anarchy

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