by Richard Astle
from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 22-23
SEVEN BEAUTIES is a stunning film. In one reviewer’s words, “a bawdy and sacrilegious depiction of atrocity and amorality,” it is both funnier than THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI and more beautiful (in a painterly sense) than the sexually-politically suspect SWEPT AWAY. Both Wertmuller and Giannini are at the top of their forms in SEVEN BEAUTIES. But what is presented in such beautifully photographed and composed footage, with such grace and humor, is a particular story with a particular message and moral content that we need to expose and examine if we are not to be aesthetically seduced and politically betrayed.
Wertmuller’s anti-hero, a deserter from Mussolini’s army, survives a German concentration camp by seducing the commandant, a woman. In his prewar life, though he describes himself am “pretty ugly to begin with,” he is called “Pasqualino Seven Beauties” because (as we see in the most exquisite—there is no other word for it—sequence in the film) he walks on a carpet of charm through the streets of Naples, flirting with women, who all flirt back. But life, and the concentration camp, has been hard on him. Before he can, as the commandant says, “reach the end of his performance,” she has to feed him. She understands, despite his protestations, that food and life are all he has come for. “First you eat, then you fuck,” she says. “If you don't fuck, then kaput.” Pasqualino survives, crawling up on the commandant’s enormous body, made to appear more enormous (echoing a famous scene in MIMI) by Wertmuller’s camera angles. Afterwards she tells him,
Spoken by a Nazi, this evaluation is perhaps not yet ours, but she finds a way to drive him still lower. She puts him in charge of “stalag 23,” his “living” unit within the camp, and orders him to “pick six men for extermination.” If he refuses, she tells him, everyone in his stalag will be executed.
This situation recalls one in another film about Nazi Europe, Costa-Gavras’ pseudo-documentary SPECIAL SECTION. This film, which tells the story of what happens when French communist resistance fighters assassinate a German officer in a subway station, is not nearly as slick as SEVEN BEAUTIES. But its political message is, perhaps for that reason, all the more clear.
The Vichy French, in an attempt to forestall Nazi retaliation, create a special court to select a number of previously convicted minor political prisoners for execution. Perhaps these French are in some sense “worse” than Pasqualino, who only does what he is told. In any case, we are carefully shown that Costa Gavras’ Nazis, like Wertmuller’s commandant, consider this act but one more proof of German moral superiority.
But despite the similarities, Costa-Gavras’ radical tragedies are quite different in style and, ultimately, in political message from Wertmuller’s existential tragi-comedies. In SPECIAL SECTION it is clear who the villains are, and the film ends, like Z, with a report of the blatantly unjust fates of the various prisoners and court officials. The audience is left with a strong sense of the incomplete. It’s a sign either of “bad art” or, as in Brecht and Godard, an incitement to the audience to complete the film in their own lives. This is an intentionally political cinema. If it fails with U.S. audiences, it is only because it is difficult to see the immediate relevance to the current political situation of the historical moment that was Vichy.
Wertmuller’s film strikes a bit closer to home. Many Americans —one need only think of Patricia Hearst—are in prison camps faced with the same kind of decision, if not necessarily the same magnitude. It is a particularly “existential” decision, that between some and many deaths, particularly when one of those many would be one’s own. Francesco, a fellow Italian deserter with whom Pasqualino was captured, points out that to cooperate would mean, “We'll be like them.” But to many of us—forgetting, perhaps, that they did, after all, save more lives than just their own—Pasqualino and the collaborators of the Special Section are worse even than the Nazis.
But in the last analysis, this moral choice is not what either of these films is about. The Vichy French had already begun to collaborate before they invented the Special Section. Even the communists followed the Moscow line and adhered to the Hitler-Stalin pact. It is these earlier historical choices that generate the moral problematic of Costa-Gavras’ film.
Wertmuller’s film is also directed elsewhere. In the words spoken over the dream-like opening sequence (which combines soft music and WWII documentary footage of bombs exploding, Hitler and Mussolini making speeches, men huddling in trenches), she defines the object of her critique. They are a particular petty bourgeois social type,
It goes on and on. Pasqualino is no Everyman. He is not one of us. We might call him a petty bourgeois, smalltime hood. He is a particular individual in a particular historical setting, left in prewar Naples at the head of a family of seven sisters and a mother, who run a mattress factory while he patrols the streets flirting with women and playing status games with other men. He is a dandy and a man of what he calls “honor,” which means that, in a society where the family is still of some social importance, when the Don asks him how he can expect to be respected while his sister wears “shoes with red bows” in a whorehouse, he defends her “virtue” by shooting her pimp.
But Pasqualino is also a bungler. He bungles this killing because he forgets to make sure his victim has a gun. He thus cannot clam “self-defense in a crime of passion” and has to find a way to make the body disappear. The Don tells him that this is his “chance to be a real man” and that “a real man has to do things normal people can't eves imagine.” So in another comic scene Pasqualino chops the body up with an ax and sends it in suitcases to three different cities. But somehow he bungles here too, is arrested, and, to top it off, confesses. “I'm proud of it,” he tells a lawyer, whom his sister hires with her body. “I'm a man of honor.” But the lawyer tells him he has but two choices left: the death sentence or an insanity plea.
Pasqualino’s honor has not saved his sister’s virtue. His death, even in his own terms, would be superfluous. He chooses to live by imitating Mussolini in the prison yard and accepting a sentence of 12 years in a madhouse. From here, it is a quick descent to saying, “I'll do anything to live,” in the last moment of the last flashback to his prewar life. (Along the way he alienates his audience both politically—by saying “I like Mussolini, he made the other countries respect us”—and sexually-politically—by raping a woman in the madhouse whose limbs are tied to the four corners of a bed. Wertmuller, it seems, is taking no chances that anyone could, as in SWEPT AWAY, retain sympathy with her male-chauvinist, proto-fascist “hero.”)
Against Pasqualino’s abject survivalism, Wertmuller presents the examples of two other prisoners: Francesco (with whom Pasqualino is arrested) and an unnamed aging anarchist who failed, he says, in three assassination attempts—Hitler, Mussolini and Salazar—because he was not very good at making bombs. When Pasqualino, in the prison camp, says he wants to survive to have children, the anarchist advises against it, speaking apocalyptically of a near future, overcrowded world in which whole families will kill each other for apples. And against the fascist Nazi ideal of order, this anarchist holds up what one is tempted to see as Wertmuller’s “solution,” an existentialist ideal of “man in disorder.” The anarchist’s last act, when the prisoners are assembled to hear Pasqualino read off the serial numbers of the six he has chosen for death, is to walk slowly out of formation, shou, “I'm tired of living in terror, I'm a free man. I'll go jump in the shit—man in disorder,” and dive into the cesspool, to be followed by bullets from the guards’ machine guns.
If the anarchist’s motivations, despite the concreteness of his act, seem a bit abstract and philosophical, the same cannot be said for Francesco, who is the next to rise to a superfluous death. Early in the film, before the first of the flashbacks to prewar Naples, he and Pasqualino, wandering through beautifully misty German forestland, come upon an orderly genocide scene and run away. “We're guilty too,” Francesco says, “We didn't say anything or try to stop them.” Pasqualino answers, truthfully if not correctly, “That would have been suicide.” Later, in the prison camp after the anarchist’s death, Francesco has had enough. Angry rather than philosophical, he shouts out “Pigs! Murderers!” After a scuffle, Francesco is about to be killed by the guards when the commandant once again twists the moral knife she has planted in Pasqualino’s belly, ordering HIM to perform the execution. This is almost too much for Pasqualino. He hesitates until Francesco himself says, “Shoot—if you don't somebody else will—I'd rather it was you, you're a friend.”
So Pasqualino shoots his best friend in the head with a pistol provided by one of the guards. The camera surveys the scene. The men kneel in formation. The guards, the commandant, and Pasqualino stand. He has head bowed, pistol in his hand, feeling his own guilt but doing nothing about it, rising to no gesture, merely surviving. Both his honor and the thirst for life that replaces it have led him to a killing. Both times he kills for a woman. Both times he stands shattered afterwards. It is only a final irony when the scene shifts to postwar Naples and we see Pasqualino return home to find not only his seven sisters, but his mother and even his lover, wearing lipstick and shoes with red bows. He speaks to his lover: “Even you've become a whore?” “Yes.” “Good. Now quit, and we'll get married. I want lots of kids—we've got to defend ourselves.” He is grotesquely reversing the message of the anarchist’s overpopulation speech. And then there is a last shot, hard to describe, an extreme close up of his face after his mother tells him, “Don't think about the past—you're alive.” His eyes shift, from upper right to dead left, and he answers, slowly, sadly, “Yes, I'm alive.”
We are left wondering what is the point of this film, which seems to condemn survival in favor of individualistic, self-righteous suicide. Again, however, it is not survival, but a particular form of survivalism that develops out of the bankruptcy of a chauvinist notion of masculine “honor,” that is the subject of this film. But if it is easy to be with Wertmuller in this attack, it is harder to follow her into a valorization of existentialist individualism—“man in disorder.” It is hard to believe that this is what is needed today when we know that only collective action has any hope of success against the national and corporate beasts that roam our world. Indeed, the most notable absence in this film is the total lack of collective resistance, from the early genocidal scene in which the victims walk calmly, single file, up to the firing line, to the final prison scene in which the prisoners kneel peacefully in formation as Pasqualino stands, head bowed, with the pistol still in his hand.
In SWEPT AWAY, the most objectionable feature is perhaps not that Rafaela seems to enjoy the prospect of rape just before Gennarino stops, or that she later grovels—for it is, after all, rather difficult to have sympathy with this spoiled, surly, ruling-class woman. But there is no serious counter example, no strong woman with whom to identify. In SEVEN BEAUTIES, too, we are presented with only two unacceptables: suicidal protest and abject survivalism. The same is not true of SPECIAL SECTION, where the action begins, after all, with a collective, if adventurist, assassination, and where, in addition, one of the judges at the end rebels against his role and casts his votes for acquittal. Small consolations, perhaps, but at least we are gives something positive to look at.
There could have been a scene like this in SEVEN BEAUTIES, had Wertmuller chosen to show it to us. For in the final scene in the prison camp, with the pistol in his hand, Pasqualino could have rebelled, too. He could reasonably have been fed up enough to rebel, and the prisoners could have been shown rising up with him. It would have been, no doubt, suicide, but not as empty as Francesco’s or the anarchist’s (and it would have made their gestures less empty by completing them). The problem with Wertmuller’s film as it stands is that, whatever its intentions, it leaves its audiences only with a sense of overwhelming despair. And this, it should be clear, is not politically productive.