Let me try, first, to be generous.
There are endless ideas at play in Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties—ideas about sex, politics, history, and gender, just for starters. This is, in addition to being a broad comedy, an ambitious intellectual exercise. (Both qualities are on impressive display in the prologue, which consists of a sardonic, scat-style poem about the gullibility of the masses delivered over World War II stock footage.) If you’re willing to read Seven Beauties strickly as a confession of Italian complicity in the Holocaust, the movie has a certain integrity. What’s more, Wertmuller muse Giancarlo Giannini—playing a Naples numbskull who gets shipped off to fight, deserts his fellow soldiers in Germany, and ends up in a concentration camp—clearly has comic talent, even if bug-eyed theatricality is not my thing.
But yikes, as a whole, this is woefully misguided, and not only because one of the central storylines involves Giannini’s Pasqualino, who fancies himself a lothario, seducing the female commander of the camp in order to preserve his own life. (Their sex scene, just one of the many instances in which the female form is depicted as comic grotesquerie, goes on for ages.) Another miscalculation occurs when the film juxtaposes extensive images of the bodies of slaughtered prisoners with a flashback sequence to Pasqualino before the war, as he “comically” wrestles with the bloated body of a rival he just shot. Even if it’s meant to be another allusion to complicity, the correlation registers as tone deaf.
As for Giannini, he really does have a clownish appeal, and he’s more than eager to play the fool. Too bad that Wertmuller—who featured him in a number of her films, including the particularly cruel Swept Away—hardly seems critical of the character. The movie gestures toward critiques of masculinity, but is mostly delighted by Pasqualino’s rascally behavior. This is embarrassing most of the time, but appalling when he rapes a woman in restraints in a mental institution and the camera plays it for laughs. Too often, in the face of real horror, Seven Beauties seems to say, “That silly Pasqualino!”
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. Or maybe I’m failing to consider this 1975 film within the context of its time, when it was nominated for four Oscars and earned a rave review from Roger Ebert. But then, looking back, you can also find Pauline Kael writing that “the box-office success of this film represents a triumph of insensitivity.” And Ellen Willis, in Rolling Stone, declaring that Wertmuller was “a woman hater who pretends to be feminist.” Those are strong words, but based on Seven Beauties, it’s hard to disagree.