Sunday, November 25, 2012
Movie Review: Seven Beauties (1975)
It isn't that often that I review films on Go Retro and rarer, still, foreign films. However, Seven Beauties remains one of the best movies I've seen so far in my life--I rank it higher than a lot of the classic epics such as Doctor Zhivago and Gone With the Wind--and its recognition on this blog is long overdue.
I was first introduced to this movie via PBS, of all places. Don't ask me how they got away with airing it--in unedited form, yet--but it was shown more than once on the same station that gave us Sesame Street and Mister Roger's Neighborhood. It was one of my father's favorite movies and I first viewed it as a teenager. Many scenes from the film have stayed with me...or should I say haunted me...ever since.
Seven Beauties, simply put, is a movie about survival. One might also say that it is a dark comedy--a very dark comedy, considering the subject matter. It stars Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini as Pasqualino Frafuso, a ladies' man and small time hood from Naples who, by a series of events, ends up in a German concentration camp during WWII. Pasqualino's nickname about town is Settebellezze, or "Seven Beauties"--so called because of his seven sisters. The name is a bit ironic, however, since none of the sisters are exactly beautiful; in a scene that's nothing short of comic genius, one of them (sporting a large facial mole and rotund figure) performs a dance at a burlesque club, only to get jeered and laughed at by the audience (see clip below--although her obscene gestures that I remember her giving to the crowd have been edited out.) This embarrasses Pasqualino greatly, since family reputation and honor are very important to him.
Through flashbacks throughout the film, we learn more about the path that sent Pasqualino to hell on earth. When one of his sisters turns to prostitution and takes up with a pimp, Pasqualino decides that the best solution to this is to kill the pimp. He then realizes he has to dispose of the body, so he chops him up with an ax--but not before the large man emits post-mortem intestinal gas, lending to a comedic moment. (Thankfully, we do not actually see Pasqualino doing the ghastly deed.) The body pieces are stuffed into suitcases and shipped to various locations, but Pasqualino is a careless criminal, and he is soon caught, put on trial, declared insane and sent to a mental asylum.
At the asylum, he rapes a female patient, joins the war effort to escape the mental hospital, deserts the army with a fellow soldier, and is eventually captured by the Nazis after raiding food from a German home in the Black Forest (while telling the lady of the house how much he admires her daughter's beautiful ass while he watched her play Wagner on the piano moments before.)
At the German prison camp, Pasqualino faces the biggest challenge of his life. The Nazi camp commandment is basically a female human version of Jabba the Hut; a large, grotesque, whip-brandishing woman played by an American actress named Shirley Stoler. Her character was supposedly based on a real-life camp commandant named Ilse Koch, also known as "The Bitch of Buchenwald." A remarkable tidbit about Stoler that I uncovered is that she later appeared on Pee-wee's Playhouse.
Pasqualino remembers something that his mother told him when he was a child--that any woman, no matter how heartless, can be reached...like a cup of coffee; they must be stirred with a little sugar sometimes to be sweetened up. With that advice in mind, Pasqualino decides to seduce the commandant; in a dangerous move he whistles while in her presence, sings, winks, and weakly smiles until he is invited to meet with her privately. What happens next is a scene that is nothing short of disturbing. Pasqualino practically crawls up She-Jabba's lumpy body with all of his physical strength left; his erection weakened by malnutrition. The dialogue says it all: "First you eat, then you fuck," she tells Pasqualino. "If you don't fuck, then kaput."
And it gets worse for Pasqualino. As grim as all this sounds, this movie is actually laugh out loud funny in many parts; thus, that's what makes it so darned brilliant. It was written and directed by Lina Wertmuller, who teamed up with Giannini for several of her movies including The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away (which later got remade into a Madonna box office bomb.) Never again have I ever seen a film that was able to mix comedy with such a horrific subject while remaining respectful to those who had to suffer through WWII, if that makes sense. In other words, Wertmuller knows when to be appropriately funny and when to stop. With Seven Beauties, she became the first female director to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1976.
If you don't want to know the ending of the film, skip this paragraph. Pasqualino makes it back to Naples, but there's a sense of sadness and defeat despite his survival. Wertmueller herself has said in interviews that Pasqualino in many ways would have been better off dead than alive and that his life by the end of the film isn't the definition of a life anymore. He's been reduced to a shell of a man and any hint of his previous swagger has been erased. But nonetheless, he is alive.
The soundtrack from this film is haunting and beautiful. Tira A Campà is the name of the theme (Google translates it to mean "bell pulls" but I suspect that's not quite right.) This scene contains the theme and also gives you a good idea of Pasqualino's la dolce vida before the war:
Seven Beauties is a stunner and a must-see for any lover of Italian cinema.