SEVEN BEAUTIES — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Between 1973 and 1975 Lina Wertmüller issued a string of art-house hits that made her a household name. Trading on her success with "Love and Anarchy" and "Swept Away," the maverick woman filmmaker turned her picaresque story about an adaptable Italian man's misadventures during World War II into a carefully juxtaposed black comedy.
The gifted Giancarlo Giannini plays Pasqualino, a Naples gangster with seven ugly sisters. Hence Pasqualino's ironic nickname "Seven Beauties." Dressed in fine Italian suits Pasqualino is a dandy who enjoys life to the fullest. When one of his sisters starts dating a pimp, however, Pasqualino accidentally kills the man with a pistol. For a gangster, Pasqualino is terrible with guns. On a friend's advice he chops up the corpse and attempts to discard it by train. Nabbed by the cops, Pasqualino is indicted and shipped off to a psychiatric ward ill-suited to his oversexed personality. Naturally, he soon winds up in even deeper trouble.
The Italian Army allows Pasqualino to serve out his sentence fighting the Germans. In tune with George Roy Hill's recent adaptation of "Slaughterhouse Five" (1972), "Seven Beauties" twists through a maze of bizarre and horrific wartime experiences. When Pasqualino and another Italian soldier attempt to go AWOL in Germany, Nazi soldiers capture them. Thrown into a concentration camp overseen by none other than the "Bitch of Buchenwald" herself, Ilse Koch (unforgettably played by Shirley Stoler), Pasqualino hatches a ridiculous plan to charm his sadistic warden into helping him survive.
Wertmüller makes their scene of humiliating sexual submission the film's thematic centerpiece. You don't forget the squeamish sequence. The filmmaker's imaginative antiwar narrative outlines war's subjugation of the flesh with dramatic genius. Nominated for five Oscars, "Seven Beauties" remains a singular example of women's cinema grappling with the tattered shreds of war to get at otherwise unspoken truths. Lina Wertmüller was the first female director to ever receive an Oscar nomination.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)