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Seven Beauties at UW Cinematheque
October 28, 2022 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pmFree
Dressed in a white suit with slicked back hair, Pasquilino (Giancarlo Giannini) looks disapprovingly at one of his sisters. She sits on a bed with her other sisters and their mother against an off-white curtain backdrop.
Few are brave enough to attempt a comedy that’s set in a concentration camp. Famously, Jerry Lewis failed spectacularly at doing so with The Day The Clown Cried (1972), and the result was embarrassing enough that he ordered it sealed away until June of 2024. But where Lewis flopped, purportedly for trying to portray a character leading children to their deaths as likable, Italian director Lina Wertmüller succeeds in Seven Beauties (1977) by bringing a European sensibility to a European event, slowly stripping away any notion of being more than a body trying to survive with the inherently macabre humor of that notion. (Wertmüller was the first woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar for this film.)
The film follows Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini, in the midst of an extended collaboration with Wertmüller throughout the 1970s), who’s nicknamed “Seven Beauties,” because he’s the only man in a household of sisters and a mother who all fall far short of traditional Western beauty standards. We first see him wandering through the German countryside after deserting the army, and he soon finds a companion (Piero Di Iorio) to tell the sorry tale of how he ended up there. It involves a botched honor killing, a stint in an insane asylum, and eventually escaping confinement to join the Fascist army.
Flashbacks skip over his stint in the army, picking up when the deserters have landed in the concentration camp. Inside they meet Pedro (Fernando Rey), a political prisoner who holds firm to his convictions, in contrast to Pasqualino’s guiding philosophy of “I’m ready to do anything to live.” The camp commandant (Shirley Stoler) gives him opportunities to debase himself to prove that statement, while gradually wearing the expression of a wounded dog.
The film’s humor and pathos are akin to the mix of shame and pride of a rock-bottom drinking tale, tolerable only because the storyteller lived to relay it. This is perhaps Wertmüller’s brilliance—detailing the creep of Fascism into the heart of one not particularly admirable man. It seems absurd when it hasn’t affected them directly, until it’s too late. With Italy’s extreme right wing nuzzling up to Fascism, now is a good time to let yourself be confronted by such a story.
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