Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties antagonizes us from the start of its opening montage of archival WWII footage, in which a narrator sardonically repeats the phrase “oh, yeah” throughout a series of political proclamations, all of them highlighting Europe’s inability to reconcile the cycles of violence and degradation that have plagued its nations throughout the 20th century. Confrontational and uncompromising, the narration instantly roots the film historically in the 1940s while also introducing Wertmüller’s irreverent reconciliation of Italian history and contemporary sexual politics.
The film is fundamentally absurd given its non-chronological, carnivalesque tale of Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a small-time Napoletano crook who’s convicted of murder and, after a series of unfortunate events, held prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Wertmüller rebukes the sentimentality and nostalgia that fuels the narrative engine of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord by making the past into a refracted mirror of the present, so that no feeling or action can be easily explained, much less moralized as being right or wrong.
Wertmüller’s ambiguity exists to propel Pasqualino through society’s ringer. Not unlike Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, he’s a ramshackle cad with a faulty ideology who uses the perceived abuse of his sister, Concettina (Elena Fiore), to take vengeance on a pimp (Mario Conti). Meaning to intimidate him, Pasqualino accidentally kills the man, dismembers him, and is thereafter sent to prison. Yet, Pasqualino is less a metaphorical punching bag for Wertmüller than a tool for her commentary on how even this man, in all of his faults and narcissism, must still be seen as a human being. In fact, Pasqualino becomes the face of Wertmüller’s multifaceted plea for compassion as he’s captured in Germany during WWII after joining the Italian army, sent to a concentration camp, and placed in the company of the camp’s commandant (Shirley Stoler), who he attempts to seduce to spare his own life.
Pasqualino at first exists as a figure plucked from a more straightforward period piece, whose dwelling within nightclubs and around the Naples countryside would be, in a more conventional film, the basis on which one might evaluate his subsequent salvation from such a wretched life of self-righteousness. Yet Wertmüller eliminates that possibility for neat character arcs by recognizing—even relishing—how much of a scoundrel Pasqualino is throughout the film as he remains the central figure of nearly every scene.
After he’s convicted of murder, Pasqualino sexually assaults a woman in the hospital so that he might be diagnosed as insane. The scene is played to amplify its sexual components, with close-ups of the woman’s breast and Pasqualino’s sweaty face. Here, Wertmüller risks being misunderstood as a voyeur because the scene is neither played for shock nor laughs; the camera stays uncomfortably close to the transgression. But in the end, Pasqualino’s sociopathic drive to save himself at the expense of all others’ protection and privacy is laid bare through his abuse, and his desperation is, in itself, what compels the film’s thematic core to confront his depravity.
Wertmüller’s screenplay thrives on the doubling of scenarios, so that the sexual assault becomes the pretext for Pasqualino’s later encounter with the commandant. In this instance, the roles have flipped, though Pasqualino still operates out of complete self-interest. As he approaches the large woman, who sits on a couch, legs spread, Wertmüller—through another uncanny use of close-up—reveals an emaciated, hunger-stricken man neither compelled by lust or power, only humiliation. It’s Pasqualino’s shame, after the film’s scrambled, rhythmic procession of events, that the film has been building to.
Bathed in neon green light, Pasqualino negotiates the lives of others to, once again, spare his own. Sex becomes a transaction and eroticism dies, especially as this sex act is, also once again, unblinking in its coverage of the pair’s entwined bodies. The image of such a deal being consummated is ultimately the greatest claim that Wertmüller makes in Seven Beauties: that nothing, whether sex, racism, violence, or politics, can be neatly disentangled from the other, because to talk about, or to show, one is to invoke them all.
The high-definition image hasn't been fully restored to eliminate all signs of damage to the negative. There are times where scratches will briefly appear, or sharpness will slightly waver, but color saturation is often vibrant and impressive. Close-ups are strong, especially in highlighting key details, like the sweat on Pasqualino's face. Sound is good, if spotty, in its range and depth; the 2.0 DTS-HD mix could use another remastering to better balance dialogue and ambient noises. Still, these are altogether modest quibbles since the film looks and sounds better than it ever has on home video.
A 15-minute excerpt from the documentary Behind the White Glasses gives some useful context to understanding how Lina Wertmüller's films became a stateside critical success, thanks in a big way to John Simon at New York magazine. The doc also briefly features Wertmüller herself, though given her infectious personality, fans will surely wish Kino had dug up at least a few more archival interviews to fill out the slate. The only other supplement of real note is an interview with Amy Heckerling, who says she thinks Seven Beauties is the best film ever made by a woman. Heckerling's grounded analysis hits the film's highlights by talking less about film form than story's meaning and purpose. Rounding out the set is a trailer and a pair of essays by director Allison Anders and film historian Claudia Consolati.
Kino Lorber continues to release notable titles from Lina Wertmüller’s filmography in high-definition transfers with this stellar Blu-ray printing of what's arguably her most internationally acclaimed film.