This is a tough film to watch. Lina Wertmüller’s caustic satire can’t help but discomfit an audience fooled by its initial comedy.
Seven Beauties (it’s literal title is Pasqualino Sevenbeauties) sets the scene with a clever and insightful monologue over war footage where you can’t help but laugh. We segue into a first person narrative of Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a dapper dandy who has a very high opinion of himself. He has eight sisters, seven he thinks are beauties, and he takes on an abusive and authoritarian role with the eighth, Concettina (Elena Fiore), who he catches performing cabaret.
Pasqulino is used to being admired and listened to but now he is a deserter on the run from the Italian army, somewhere in war-torn Germany. His belief in himself and his ability to not only survive but to charm everyone in the process, is dealt a blow when he and fellow deserter Francesco (Piero Di Iorio) are captured and sent to a concentration camp. It is here that he is faced with truly terrible choices, his morality, or lack of it, contrasted with Francesco and fellow inmate and anarchist Pedro (Fernando Rey).
This is where it starts to get uncomfortable; the audience has been laughing along with the hero’s slapstick antics and don’t seem to notice when his bravado becomes abuse and that it has been that the whole time. There is a particularly terrible rape scene that seems a very real escalation from the ‘harmless’ bottom pinching and catcalling that preceded it.
I don’t know what Wertmüller’s intentions were but the story seems like a metaphor for the true nature that emerges during war and how we recover from that, or don’t. Pasqualino is Italy, not always beautiful but with bravado and a strong sense of moral rightness. He mimics Il Duce, loves his mamma and at first resists moral compromise, oblivious to the fact he has already done it.
His nemesis is Germany, personified by the Prison Camp Commandant (Shirley Stoler). She is ultimately more powerful as any hand-wringing over morality is long gone. Through Pasqualino we see what happens to a country that jumps into bed, however reluctantly, with a fascist force. We see the different choices that are made and the broken psyche that is left.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.