Thursday, 14 April 2011

AFED #104: Pasqualino Settebellezze [Seven Beauties] (Italy, 1975); Dir. Lina Wertmüller

Seven Beauties is a film I feel I ought to have liked, or at least appreciated, more than I did. It's an epic, picaresque satire that touches upon subject matter that was still sensitive at the time, but there's an ugliness to it which I found difficult to reconcile.


After an introduction that soliloquises ironically about the rise and fall of Mussolini and the indignities of the Second World War over old wartime footage, the story begins in somewhere in Germany shortly after the collapse of Italian fascism. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) and Francesco are two Italian soldiers fleeing the Nazis.

During conversation Pasqualino reveals that he killed a man before the war and the narrative shifts into flashback of his earlier life as a hustler and dandy in Naples, where his life revolved around protecting the honour of his seven sisters. After killing a man who attempted to pimp one of these 'beauties' (they're anything but beautiful) he evades execution by feigning insanity and being sent to an asylum. The arrival of war offers him a way out and he signs up.

Meanwhile in the present the two soldiers are captured and sent to a concentration camp. Desperate to save his own skin Pasqualino seeks to engratiate himself with the fat, domineering female warden through performing sexual favours. However, the plan backfires when he's ordered to select six of his fellow prisoners for execution.

The film adopts a blackly comic, ironic tone throughout, with lashings of coarse and scatological humour. Pasqualino's willingness to debase himself in the name of self-preservation makes him a far from sympathetic character, although of course the essential irony is that it's this that allows him to stay alive while those more virtuous perish. Giannini - best known today for his role as the agent Mathis in the last two Bond films - gives a committed performance in the central role.

It was directed by Lina Wertmüller, who became the first woman to be Oscar nominated in that role, one of several nods the picture received from the Academy. A protegee of Fellini (she served as assistant director on ), the Maestro's influence is quite apparent, particular in the Naples scenes and depictions of burlesque entertainment, although with nothing like the same flair he might have bestowed.

The point one supposes is that survival is a vulgar business and perhaps this is something not entirely appreciated given the romantic and sentimental depictions of war we're used to. This may be true but the story drags at certain points and in the absence of many demonstrations of humanity it's very difficult to care, at least until the latter stages. Seven Beauties is not without admirers but by the end I was glad to be done with it.

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